Espionage in the 21st Century: A Threat to Democracy

Updated: Nov 14


The rapid digitalization and the significant technological improvement of the 21st century has led to amazing things like easier communication, more efficient business activity, and the development of new medical methods. However, just as there is no land without stones and no meat without bones, there is no technological improvement without having its downsides.

Technology and technological tools might have made our lives faster and more comfortable, however, we must be aware that it is not only roses and butterflies. As everything can be misused, so can technology.



Electronic surveillance is a creation of the 21st century, enabling both governmental and non-governmental actors to gather information without the user’s consent.

Electronic surveillance can be done by misusing tools and platforms like recorders, cameras, and social media or through the misuse of monitoring software. When installed on a device, this spyware can secretly monitor the device’s activity and gather all the information without the users’ knowledge.


Although possible topics on the misuse of technology and its effects on democracy are never-ending, in this article, I decided to talk about one of the most well-known spyware, and what it means for democracy and for the freedom of expression.

Before the 21st century thinking of the word Pegasus provoked quite obvious associations in one’s mind; people probably thought of the mystical white horse-like creature in Greek mythology. However, since 2013 the word Pegasus gained another meaning.

The malware Pegasus is a high-tech, nearly undetectable mobile spyware developed by the Israeli cyber-arms NSO company. It was put on the market and advertised as an available tool for governments to fight against terrorism, criminal activity and strengthen national security. However, in numerous cases, it was used by autocratic regimes for different purposes in a way that clearly violated human rights.

“Various parts of the UN Human Rights system, including my own Office, have repeatedly raised serious concerns about the dangers of authorities using surveillance tools from a variety of sources supposed to promote public safety in order to hack the phones and computers of people conducting legitimate journalistic activities, monitoring human rights or expressing dissent or political opposition”, said High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet. (Yang, 2021)


Like the mythical divine horse, the spyware can travel unimaginable distances, just not inside the forest but from the headquarter of the cyber-arms company to one’s private technical device, planted to record calls, scan messages, view photos, videos, and internet search history. Once it is installed on a mobile, it can easily enable the microphone, camera, harvest any information and then send it back to the attacker. The fact that Pegasus was able to hack the famously secure encryption of WhatsApp and is hardly detectable on technical devices reflects how dangerous it can be if used for the wrong purposes. Pegasus can be viewed as a digital infrastructure in politics as it can detect the activity of human rights activists, journalists, or any individual or group whose anti-regime project feels threatening to the government.


Thanks to the Pegasus Project, a recently created collaborative journalist investigation, we have data on the list of governments and political figures who used the spyware to spy on their opposition. Their investigation discovered 10 customers of the NSO company including Mexico, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, India, and Hungary. In all these countries Pegasus was used to oppress the voices of those who expressed or wanted to express political criticism against the regime in all of these countries, instead of being used to strengthen national security. As a result, freedom of speech, basic human rights, and democratic core values were all violated


Taking the case of Hungary, it was the first and only European country that was confirmed to use the NSO’s spyware malware. Investigators of the Pegasus project and of the Hungarian journal Direkt36 both affirmed that the Hungarian government have used the spyware to target at least two publishers of media outlets from the opposition and to espionage on the former state secretary. One of their targets was Dániel Németh who was working on investigating the luxurious life of the Hungarian elite financed by obvious corruption. By using drones, he discovered the hidden yachts and luxuries of Hungarian political figures in exotic places, but it turned out that he was also watched, as two of his phones were confirmed to be hacked and infected by Pegasus. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán did not confirm whether the Hungarian government used Pegasus, however, other ministers and figures of his party admitted that they bought Pegasus and used it. "I don't see anything objectionable in it, large tech companies carry out much broader monitoring of citizens than the Hungarian state does."- said Lajos Kósa, chairman of the parliamentary defense and law enforcement committee.


NSO faced extreme criticism from human rights activists and international organizations like Amnesty International. In response, the company reassured the outraged public that they would make sure that Pegasus is only used to fight terrorism and monitor criminal activity. In contrast, soon after their statement they sold the malware to several clients who used it to violate human rights and oppress the voice of the public. Dubai asked for a request from NSO to expand their use of the spyware so they can monitor phones in the United Kingdom to tackle the problem of drug dealers using foreign sim cards. Years before that, in 2016, the United Arab Emirates tried to use Pegasus on one of the most well-known and well-respected Emirati human rights activist’s phones. Ahmed Mansoor was arrested and imprisoned one year later. Despite the history of the monarchy’s previous aim to abuse Pegasus, NSO agreed to allow Dubai to expand the usage of the spyware and use it in the UK. The result of the Pegasus project’s investigation has shown that the doubts of international organizations and human rights activists were based on real danger as their records confirmed that some of the targets of the government were not drug dealers at all, but rather activists living in exile.


Just by looking at the cases of Dubai and Hungary, it becomes clear how threatening this cyber weapon can become to democratic structures and to human rights in general in the hands of governments with totalitarian aspirations. Justifying the usage of the spyware by claiming that it is installed for state protective reasons proved to be a questionable statement, as we could have seen how they used it to espionage on the activity of criticists of certain regimes.

Pegasus is nearly impossible to be detected on one’s device, therefore it is an extremely dangerous tool that is available for dictatorship-like governments to oppress public opinion, similar to the well-known intelligence-gathering activities of the Soviet Union, just in a 21st-century edition.


The Pegasus spyware group is now blacklisted by the US; however, further measures are certainly needed to assure human rights and an oppression-free political environment all around the globe.





Sources:

  • Leander, A. (2021), Parsing Pegasus: An infrastructural Approach to the Relationship between Technology and Swiss Security Politics, Swiss Political Science Review, Volume 27, Issue 1 p.205-213. https://doi.org/10.1111/spsr.12441







About the author:


My name is Réka and I am from the quite small, but beautiful country of Hungary. I currently live in Madrid, Spain; a country of sunshine,


tapas, orange juice, and pure positivity.


I study International Relations, a subject area that is precious to my heart, as I love everything connected to social sciences, politics, and psychology. I love traveling and connecting with people. It is truly one of the best ways to get to know more about our beautiful, complex, and diverse World and society.



Credits:

drawing by@tiana



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