July 20th, 2021
The Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications (MoITT) on Monday, July 19, announced the development of Beep Pakistan, a ‘secure and seamless’ communication application for government employees.
Federal Minister for Information Technology and Telecommunications Syed Aminul Haq took to Twitter to explain that the all will initially feature text chats and calls while video calls will be added soon. Beep Pakistan, set to launch within a few months, will be made mandatory for all government workers for official use.
The announcement came within hours of the revelation of the targeting of over 50,000 phone numbers by various governments using Pegasus spyware, a zero-click Trojan virus developed by the Israeli cyberarms firm NSO Group. The spyware can be covertly installed on devices running most versions of iOS and Android, and can access messages, calls, camera and microphone – virtually all data – on one’s phone.
The NSO states that Pegasus is one technology the firm provides to authorized governments for the surveillance of terrorists and criminals. It provided that clients are restricted to use its products for criminal and national security investigations. However, the target list leaked to rights group Amnesty International and Paris-based journalism non-profit Forbidden Stories in 2020 contained phone numbers of journalists, activists, leading opposition politicians and others in addition to criminals.
A report published under the Pegasus Project, a consortium of 17 media organizations investigating spying abuses by various governments with the Israeli spyware, highlighted the practice’s repercussions for freedom of speech, press and political dissent. Over the course of several months, journalists of The Washington Post and PBS Frontline in the US, The Guardian in the UK, Die Zeit, Süddeutsche Zeitung, WDR and NDR in Germany, Le Monde and Radio France in France, The Wire in India, Haaretz in Israel, Aristegui Noticias and Proceso in Mexico, Knack and Le Soir in Belgium, Daraj in Syria, Direkt36 in Hungary, and Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), investigated these abuses.
On Monday, the Washington Post reported that a number once used by Prime Minister Imran Khan was among the target list while Haaretz also confirmed that a number of Pakistani officials, Kashmiri freedom fighters, and some 1,000 Indians including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political rival and former Congress party head Rahul Gandhi, and an Indian Supreme Court judge were also targeted.
Although it has yet to be determined whether or not the Premier’s data was compromised, Pakistan has accused the Modi regime of the possible hacking attempt. Meanwhile, Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry on Monday stated that an inquiry has been launched into the incident.
Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has expressed its shock and has announced its intention to bring legal action against those responsible for this mass surveillance.
This is appalling,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “The revelations about the use of the Pegasus spyware inspire shock and revulsion, given the extent of the surveillance and targeting of journalists. No, NSO Group does not contribute to ‘global security and stability,’ contrary to what the company claims. Pegasus is a vile and loathsome tool, invented by digital mercenaries and prized by ‘press freedom predators’ for use in persecuting journalists.”
“In 2020, we (RSF) branded NSO Group as a ‘digital predator’ and contributed to WhatsApp’s lawsuit against the Israeli company in the United States. We will do everything to ensure that NSO Group is punished for the crimes it has committed and the tragedies it has made possible. The justice systems in democratic countries must address this extremely serious matter, establish the facts and punish those responsible. RSF is currently deciding on the legal action it will take in one or more countries. We urge targeted journalists and media to contact us in order to join in an appropriate legal response to the revelations about the Pegasus spyware.”
Deloire added: “The revelations about the Pegasus software are a call for change. We urge democratic governments to place an immediate moratorium on the sale of surveillance technology until safeguards have been established to prevent its oppressive use.”
At least 180 journalists in 20 countries have been targeted by the Israeli spyware company’s clients from 2016 to June 2021. NSO Group’s clients include both authoritarian governments such as those of Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco and Bahrain, and democracies, such as Mexico and India. All regions of the world are concerned, from Hungary, Turkey and Azerbaijan in Europe, to Togo and Rwanda in Africa.
RSF began sounding the alarm about this spyware in 2017, notably after it was used to spy on Mexican journalists. We subsequently denounced its use against journalists in Saudi Arabia, India, Morocco and Azerbaijan.
RSF hails the quality of the investigations by the media outlets that cooperated in producing these revelations about Pegasus, and the information provided by ForbiddenStories, the Amnesty Security Lab and previously by CitizenLab.