Pegasus Spyware Is Detected in a War Zone for the First Time

On November 10, 2021, Varuzhan Geghamyan, an assistant professor at Yerevan State University in Armenia, received a notification from Apple on his phone. His device had been compromised by Pegasus, a sophisticated piece of spyware created by the Israeli NSO Group that has been used by governments to spy on and repress journalists, activists, and civil society groups. But Geghamyan was mystified as to why he’d been targeted. 

“At the time, I was delivering public lectures and giving commentaries, appearing on local and state media,” he says. He was mainly speaking about the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory that is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has sought independence, with the backing of Armenia.

In a joint investigation by Access Now, Citizen Lab, Amnesty International, CyberHub-AM, and independent security researcher Ruben Muradyan, the team concluded that Geghamyan was one of 13 Armenian public officials, including journalists, former government workers, and at least one United Nations official, whose phones were targeted by the elite spyware. Amnesty’s research previously found that more than 1,000 Azerbaijanis were also included on a leaked list of potential Pegasus targets. Five of them were confirmed to have been hacked.

“It was the first time that we have spyware use documented in a war like this,” says Natalia Krapiva, tech-legal counsel at Access Now. With it comes a whole host of complications.

NSO Group did not provide an attributable comment in time for publication. 

While Scott-Railton says it’s unclear what information was being sought from the victims, the Pegasus software gives nearly unprecedented access to anything in an infected phone. It also allows the surveillant to turn on the microphone or camera remotely, turning the device into a “pocket spy.” “It’s the kind of thing that could potentially … change or influence the course of a conflict.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the experience of one victim, Anna Naghdalyan, a former spokesperson for the Armenian Foreign Ministry. In her role, Naghdalyan had intimate knowledge of the ceasefire negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with “all the information about the war on my phone,” she told Access Now.

“It’s one thing for a state to use a tool like this against military adversaries on the battlefield,” says David Kaye, a former UN special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression and a clinical professor of law at the University of California, Irvine. But the potential to surveil across borders in a time of conflict has “not just human rights concerns, but national security concerns.”

According to the report, if any humanitarian organizations were caught in the surveillance dragnet, that could make the use of Pegasus a violation of international law, which protects humanitarian workers in conflict settings.

“Humanitarian workers are considered outside of combat, so efforts to infiltrate their communications or to conduct surveillance for purposes of military advantage on humanitarian aid workers and humanitarian installations is prohibited in most cases,” says  Raymond, a coleader of the Humanitarian Research Lab and lecturer at Yale’s School of Public Health.

“Regardless of which state is using this, there needs to be a comprehensive investigation and accountability,” says Ó Cearbhaill.

Source : Wired