When an Israeli company released a new spyware product called Pegasus in 2011, it changed cyber warfare. Pegasus can reliably decrypt smartphone communications without the knowledge of the phone user and without the cooperation of AT&T, Apple or any other company.
The Mexican government bought Pegasus – from NSO Group, the Israeli startup that created it – and used it to capture El Chapo, the drug lord. European investigators have used the product to break the siege of child sexual abuse and prevent terrorist plots.
But Pegasus also created some problems, and they quickly became apparent. Governments can use it to spy on and crack down on political critics and opponents. Mexico is an example: It has deployed spyware not only against El Chapo but also against dissidents and journalists. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have used it against civil rights activists.
The FBI bought a version of Pegasus in 2019, according to a new Times Magazine investigation by Ronen Bergman and Mark Mazzetti. Since then, US officials across the Trump and Biden administrations have debated whether to use it in the country as well as abroad.
For now, the FBI has decided not to do so. The Commerce Department has gone further, adding NSO to its list of foreign companies it says jeopardize national security and barring US companies from working with it. Even so, the US government’s Pegasus clone continues to sit in an office building in New Jersey, ready to be turned on if the federal government changes its policy.
Ronen and Mark’s story is full of other revelations, too:
Israel used Pegasus as a diplomatic sweetener. It gave the UAE and Bahrain access to it, which helped lead to the Abrahamic Agreement, the 2020 treaty in which Arab countries normalized relations with Israel. At one point, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, threatened to block a significant part of the deal unless Israel renewed its license to use Saudi Arabia’s Pegasus.
The CIA purchased a copy of Pegasus for Djibouti, to aid it in its fight against terrorism – despite the country’s record of human rights abuses, including the torture of dissidents.
Pegasus helped link right-wing nationalist governments around the world, with Hungary, India and Poland collaborating on its use. Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israel’s prime minister, decided not to order the severance of Poland’s Pegasus system even after the country passed legislation that many in Israel saw as negating the Holocaust, and the Polish prime minister spoke about “Jewish perpetrators” among those responsible for the genocide.
In addition to these fascinating details, the story emphasizes a larger point about cyber warfare. As Ronen and Mark write:
Cyberweapons have changed international relations more profoundly than any other step since the advent of the atomic bomb. In some ways, they’re even more deeply destabilizing – they’re cheap, easy to distribute, and can be deployed without consequences for an attacker. Dealing with their proliferation is radically changing the nature of relations, as Israel long discovered and the rest of the world is now beginning to understand as well.
More than 75 years after the invention of nuclear weapons, only 9 countries have the ability to use them. But dozens of countries already have cyber weapons. Mark told me, “Everybody seems to want them, and this gives tremendous power to the countries that sell them and can use them to diplomatic advantage.”
It has also led to a dramatic increase in government espionage, to its advantage and disadvantage.
For more: This is much more Highlights of the investigation.
A baseball debate takes place
Both Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens failed to make it into the Baseball Hall of Fame this week, in their 10th and final year on the ballot. But the debate over their candidates – both their undeniable statistical greatness and their alleged steroid use – is hardly over.
There are two paths to the Hall of Fame. In the first, sports journalists vote for candidates and a player must receive at least 75 percent of the vote. Bonds have received 66 percent this year and Clemens 65 percent. In fact, the voters who kept them out of the Hall of Fame branded them as fraudsters. In the second part, a group known as the epochal committee – which includes most of the Hall of Fame players and baseball executives – will evaluate players from 1988 onwards. That group votes later this year.
Many writers, fans and players say that Bonds and Clemens deserve a recommendation. For one thing, some current Hall members have their own history of cheating: Pitcher Gaylord Perry was appointed in 1991 despite winning a baseball doctorate, and for decades much of the league has use of amphetamine drugs known as “greennies”. For others, Bonds and Clemens are more than simply good players; they’re some of the best ever, dominating the sport at a time when many others are on performance-enhancing drugs.
Several alleged doping players have been involved, including David Ortiz, who was elected this week. Others, such as Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, are not, although they are still on next year’s ballot. – Matthew Cullen, a Morning writer
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https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/28/briefing/pegasus-spyware-espionage-cyberwarfare.html The New Spy Wars – The New York Times