Cheryl Kahla
Deputy online news editor
3 minute read
21 Jul 2021
12:11 pm

Pegasus Project: Ramaphosa targeted in massive data leak

Cheryl Kahla

Spyware created by Israeli spyware firm NSO Group has been used to target journalists, activists and politicians, including President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Picture: Compiled by Citizen.co.za. From left to right: Emmanuel Macron (Gallo Images), Cyril Ramaphosa (GCIS) and Imran Khan (Gallo Images)

The latest shocker in the Pegasus spyware case has pointed to President Cyril Ramaphosa as the target of a massive data leak after his phone number was found amongst 14 world leaders’ listed as “people of interest” by NSO Group.

Ramaphosa targeted in spyware campaign

The NSO Group, an Israeli spyware firm, targeted Ramaphosa along with French President Emmanuel Macron and Pakistan’s Imran Khan, whose phone numbers were on a list of potential surveillance targets in the Pegasus spyware case.

As reported by The Guardian, Ramaphosa was “selected” by Rwanda back in 2019, however, “this does not mean he was subject to an attempted or successful hack”. In addition, NSO insists the database has “no relevance”.

Spyware made and licensed by NSO had been used in both attempted and successful hacks of smartphones belonging to journalists, government officials, human rights activists, diplomats, military chiefs and senior politicians from 34 countries.

What is the Pegasus Project?

The Pegasus Project is a group consisting of more than 80 journalists from 17 media organisations in 10 countries which collaborated with Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based media non-profit, and Amnesty International.

Amnesty International provides the group with technical support by means of “cutting-edge forensic tests on mobile phones to identify traces of the spyware”.

Human rights activist Agnès Callamard explained: “These revelations blow apart any claims by NSO that such attacks are rare and down to rogue use of their technology. While the company claims its spyware is only used for legitimate criminal and terror investigations, it’s clear its technology facilitates systemic abuse. They paint a picture of legitimacy, while profiting from widespread human rights violations.”

Following backlash after Forbidden Stories’ report went viral, the NSO Group in a statement “firmly denies [the investigators’] false claims, wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories”.

Real-world harm caused

According to Amnesty International, the amount of journalists targeted in the spyware campaign “vividly illustrates how Pegasus is used as a tool to intimidate critical media”.

“It is about controlling public narrative, resisting scrutiny, and suppressing any dissenting voice,” Callamard said. The following cases lays bare the real-world harm caused to targets of the spyware campaign and data leak.

  • In Mexico, journalist Cecilio Pineda’s phone was selected for targeting just weeks before his killing in 2017. The Pegasus Project identified at least 25 Mexican journalists were selected for targeting over a two-year period. NSO has denied that even if Pineda’s phone had been targeted, data collected from his phone contributed to his death.
  • Pegasus has been used in Azerbaijan, a country where only a few independent media outlets remain. More than 40 Azerbaijani journalists were selected as potential targets according to the investigation. Amnesty International’s Security Lab found the phone of Sevinc Vaqifqizi, a freelance journalist for independent media outlet Meydan TV, was infected over a two-year period until May 2021.
  • In India, at least 40 journalists from nearly every major media outlet in the country were selected as potential targets between 2017-2021. Forensic tests revealed the phones of Siddharth Varadarajan and MK Venu, co-founders of independent online outlet The Wire, were infected with Pegasus spyware as recently as June 2021.
  • The investigation also identified journalists working for major international media including the Associated Press, CNN, The New York Times and Reuters as potential targets. One of the highest profile journalists was Roula Khalaf, the editor of the Financial Times.