When the Guardian’s head of investigations, Paul Lewis, first told me about a huge data leak suggesting authoritarian regimes were possibly using smartphone hacking software to target activists, politicians and journalists, perhaps the worst part is that I wasn’t particularly surprised.
The more we’ve learned about global surveillance, ever since the Guardian’s Snowden revelations in 2013, the more the world has become accustomed to the idea that governments, both democratic and otherwise, are keenly interested in using technology and the phones in our pockets to keep tabs on us.
This week’s revelations, by the Guardian and 16 other media organisations working with Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based media nonprofit, illustrate the disturbing way that journalists, human rights campaigners, politicians and others can be targeted using spying software, or ‘spyware’.
The phone hacking tool, Pegasus, can gather data, record video using a phone’s camera, activate the microphone covertly, take screenshots and location information – all without the owner’s knowledge. A phone can be infected without its owner even clicking on an incoming call or message.
NSO sells its software to 40 governments around the world (it does not say which ones), and says its purpose is to help them investigate terrorists and criminals. But a leaked list of tens of thousands of numbers, many belonging to people with no apparent connection to criminality, and forensic analysis carried out on some of their phones, suggests some governments are spying on pro-democracy activists, journalists investigating corruption, and political opponents.
Investigations such as these are legally fraught and technically complex, involving dozens of journalists, IT experts and in-house lawyers in multiple locations. Those being investigated are often highly secretive and extremely well-resourced, financially and technologically. They don’t want the scrutiny that courageous journalists subject them to. There can be great jeopardy in publishing things that powerful people do not want published.
And yet for the Guardian, such investigations are at the heart of our mission. Because of our independence, we are able to investigate boldly, putting the truth ahead of the agenda of an owner, investors or shareholders. And because we are reader-funded we have been able to keep our journalism open for all to read, so when important stories like this come along, everyone gets to read them.
From the Snowden revelations to our ongoing scrutiny of big technology, the Guardian has a long track record of exposing how technology can be subverted to abuse democracy and human rights.
If that is a mission that you appreciate, please do join us today. Your support will empower our journalists to continue scrutinising governments and others who exploit technology with a disregard for people’s rights.