How Democracies Spy on Their Citizens
The parliament of Catalonia, the autonomous region in Spain, sits on the edge of Barcelona’s Old City, in the remains of a fortified citadel constructed by King Philip V to monitor the restive local population. The citadel was built with forced labor from hundreds of Catalans, and its remaining structures and gardens are for many a reminder of oppression. Today, a majority of Catalan parliamentarians support independence for the region, which the Spanish government has deemed unconstitutional. In 2017, as Catalonia prepared for a referendum on independence, Spanish police arrested at least twelve separatist politicians. On the day of the referendum, which received the support of ninety per cent of voters despite low turnout, police raids of polling stations injured hundreds of civilians. Leaders of the independence movement, some of whom live in exile across Europe, now meet in private and communicate through encrypted messaging platforms.
One afternoon last month, Jordi Solé, a pro-independence member of the European Parliament, met a digital-security researcher, Elies Campo, in one of the Catalan parliament’s ornate chambers. Solé, who is forty-five and wore a loose-fitting suit, handed over his cell phone, a silver iPhone 8 Plus. He had been getting suspicious texts and wanted to have the device analyzed. Campo, a soft-spoken thirty-eight-year-old with tousled dark hair, was born and raised in Catalonia and supports independence. He spent years working for WhatsApp and Telegram in San Francisco, but recently moved home. “I feel in a way it’s a kind of duty,” Campo told me. He now works as a fellow at the Citizen Lab, a research group based at the University of Toronto that focusses on high-tech human-rights abuses.
Campo collected records of Solé’s phone’s activity, including crashes it had experienced, then ran specialized software to search for spyware designed to operate invisibly. As they waited, Campo looked through the phone for evidence of attacks that take varied forms: some arrive through WhatsApp or as S.M.S. messages that seem to come from known contacts; some require a click on a link, and others operate with no action from the user. Campo identified an apparent notification from the Spanish government’s social-security agency which used the same format as links to malware that the Citizen Lab had found on other phones. “With this message, we have the proof that at some point you were attacked,” Campo explained. Soon, Solé’s phone vibrated. “This phone tested positive,” the screen read. Campo told Solé, “There’s two confirmed infections,” from June, 2020. “In those days, your device was infected—they took control of it and were on it probably for some hours. Downloading, listening, recording.”
Solé’s phone had been infected with Pegasus, a spyware technology designed by NSO Group, an Israeli firm, which can extract the contents of a phone, giving access to its texts and photographs, or activate its camera and microphone to provide real-time surveillance—exposing, say, confidential meetings. Pegasus is useful for law enforcement seeking criminals, or for authoritarians looking to quash dissent. Solé had been hacked in the weeks before he joined the European Parliament, replacing a colleague who had been imprisoned for pro-independence activities. “There’s been a clear political and judicial persecution of people and elected representatives,” Solé told me, “by using these dirty things, these dirty methodologies.”
In Catalonia, more than sixty phones—owned by Catalan politicians, lawyers, and activists in Spain and across Europe—have been targeted using Pegasus. This is the largest forensically documented cluster of such attacks and infections on record. Among the victims are three members of the European Parliament, including Solé. Catalan politicians believe that the likely perpetrators of the hacking campaign are Spanish officials, and the Citizen Lab’s analysis suggests that the Spanish government has used Pegasus. A former NSO employee confirmed that the company has an account in Spain. (Government agencies did not respond to requests for comment.) The results of the Citizen Lab’s investigation are being disclosed for the first time in this article. I spoke with more than forty of the targeted individuals, and the conversations revealed an atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust. Solé said, “That kind of surveillance in democratic countries and democratic states—I mean, it’s unbelievable.”
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Commercial spyware has grown into an industry estimated to be worth twelve billion dollars. It is largely unregulated and increasingly controversial. In recent years, investigations by the Citizen Lab and Amnesty International have revealed the presence of Pegasus on the phones of politicians, activists, and dissidents under repressive regimes. An analysis by Forensic Architecture, a research group at the University of London, has linked Pegasus to three hundred acts of physical violence. It has been used to target members of Rwanda’s opposition party and journalists exposing corruption in El Salvador. In Mexico, it appeared on the phones of several people close to the reporter Javier Valdez Cárdenas, who was murdered after investigating drug cartels. Around the time that Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia approved the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a longtime critic, Pegasus was allegedly used to monitor phones belonging to Khashoggi’s associates, possibly facilitating the killing, in 2018. (Bin Salman has denied involvement, and NSO said, in a statement, “Our technology was not associated in any way with the heinous murder.”) Further reporting through a collaboration of news outlets known as the Pegasus Project has reinforced the links between NSO Group and anti-democratic states. But there is evidence that Pegasus is being used in at least forty-five countries, and it and similar tools have been purchased by law-enforcement agencies in the United States and across Europe. Cristin Flynn Goodwin, a Microsoft executive who has led the company’s efforts to fight spyware, told me, “The big, dirty secret is that governments are buying this stuff—not just authoritarian governments but all types of governments.”
NSO Group is perhaps the most successful, controversial, and influential firm in a generation of Israeli startups that have made the country the center of the spyware industry. I first interviewed Shalev Hulio, NSO Group’s C.E.O., in 2019, and since then I have had access to NSO Group’s staff, offices, and technology. The company is in a state of contradiction and crisis. Its programmers speak with pride about the use of their software in criminal investigations—NSO claims that Pegasus is sold only to law-enforcement and intelligence agencies—but also of the illicit thrill of compromising technology platforms. The company has been valued at more than a billion dollars. But now it is contending with debt, battling an array of corporate backers, and, according to industry observers, faltering in its long-standing efforts to sell its products to U.S. law enforcement, in part through an American branch, Westbridge Technologies. It also faces numerous lawsuits in many countries, brought by Meta (formerly Facebook), by Apple, and by individuals who have been hacked by NSO. The company said in its statement that it had been “targeted by a number of politically motivated advocacy organizations, many with well-known anti-Israel biases,” and added that “we have repeatedly cooperated with governmental investigations, where credible allegations merit, and have learned from each of these findings and reports, and improved the safeguards in our technologies.” Hulio told me, “I never imagined in my life that this company would be so famous. . . . I never imagined that we would be so successful.” He paused. “And I never imagined that it would be so controversial.”
Hulio, who is forty, has a lumbering gait and pudgy features. He typically wears loose T-shirts and jeans, with his hair in a utilitarian buzz cut. Last month, I visited him at his duplex in a luxury high-rise in Park Tzameret, the fanciest neighborhood in Tel Aviv. He lives with his three small children and his wife, Avital, who is expecting a fourth. There’s a pool on the upper level of Hulio’s apartment, and downstairs, in the double-height living room, is a custom arcade cabinet stocked with retro games and bearing a cartoon portrait of him, wearing shades, next to the word “Hulio” in large eight-bit font. Avital attends to the children, frequent renovations, and an ever-shifting array of pets: rabbits remain, a parrot does not. The family has a teacup poodle named Marshmallow Rainbow Sprinkle.
Hulio, Omri Lavie, and Niv Karmi founded NSO Group in 2010, creating its name from the first letters of their names and renting space in a converted chicken coop on a kibbutz. The company now has some eight hundred employees, and its technology has become a leading tool of state-sponsored hacking, instrumental in the fight among great powers.
The Citizen Lab’s researchers concluded that, on July 26 and 27, 2020, Pegasus was used to infect a device connected to the network at 10 Downing Street, the office of Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. A government official confirmed to me that the network was compromised, without specifying the spyware used. “When we found the No. 10 case, my jaw dropped,” John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab, recalled. “We suspect this included the exfiltration of data,” Bill Marczak, another senior researcher there, added. The official told me that the National Cyber Security Centre, a branch of British intelligence, tested several phones at Downing Street, including Johnson’s. It was difficult to conduct a thorough search of phones—“It’s a bloody hard job,” the official said—and the agency was unable to locate the infected device. The nature of any data that may have been taken was never determined.
The Citizen Lab suspects, based on the servers to which the data were transmitted, that the United Arab Emirates was likely behind the hack. “I’d thought that the U.S., U.K., and other top-tier cyber powers were moving slowly on Pegasus because it wasn’t a direct threat to their national security,” Scott-Railton said. “I realized I was mistaken: even the U.K. was underestimating the threat from Pegasus, and had just been spectacularly burned.” The U.A.E. did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and NSO employees told me that the company was unaware of the hack. One of them said, “We hear about every, every phone call that is being hacked over the globe, we get a report immediately”—a statement that contradicts the company’s frequent arguments that it has little insight into its customers’ activities. In its statement, the company added, “Information raised in the inquiry indicates that these allegations are, yet again, false and could not be related to NSO products for technological and contractual reasons.”