pegasus spyware smartphone NSO group Israel
Pegasus spyware was used to target journalists and political leaders
The Israel-based NSO Group first hit the headlines in 2016, when it was accused of helping the United Arab Emirates spy on a dissident. NSO has denied the latest allegations regarding Pegasus, saying they are "false."

A worldwide scandal has broken after it emerged that thousands of journalists around the world may have been spied on by their governments using their iPhones or Android phones.

Opposition MPs in Hungary have demanded an inquiry after a investigation by a group of media outlets claimed Viktor Orban's government bought the Pegasus malware to spy on journalists, politicians and businessmen who had been critical.

The phones of two investigative journalists in Hungary, Andras Szabo and Szabolcs Panyi, were found to have been infected with Pegagus.

Mr. Panyi told Forbidden Stories: "There are some people in this country who consider a regular journalist as dangerous as someone suspected of terrorism."

Hungary is just one of a number of countries where the government is said to have bought Pegasus.

The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said on Monday, 19 July, the Pegasus affair was "completely unacceptable" if true.

So what is it and why are people so worried by it?

An investigation by The Guardian, The Washington Post, Le Monde and several other media outlets, published on Sunday, 18 July, suggested that NSO Group's Pegasus spyware can switch on a phone's camera or microphone and steal data from the phone without the owner being aware.

Pegasus can be installed remotely without the need to trick a user into downloading it and once it is on, the phone is effectively a pocket spy.

It can access WhatsApp messages, emails, text messages, GPS data and the phone's contacts book. Pegasus gives those conducting surveillance on a target the ability to not just follow the subject and find out who they are talking to and what about, but also to access compromising images and information with which they could be blackmailed or extorted.

The news organisations said a leak from Forbidden Stories, a not-for-profit journalism group based in Paris, suggested more than 50,000 smartphone numbers had been identified by NSO, 15,000 of which were in Mexico and reportedly included the number of a murdered journalist, Cecilio Pineda Birto.

Pineda was shot dead in Ciudad Altamirano in 2017 hours after claiming in a Facebook Live broadcast that local politicians and state police had colluded with a cartel boss, El Tequilero.

Among the numbers on the list are those belonging to prominent members of Arab royal families, 65 global business executives, 85 human rights activists, 189 journalists and more than 600 politicians, including presidents, prime ministers and cabinet ministers.

The journalists on the list worked for Agence France-Presse, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, The New York Times, Al Jazeera, El Pais, the Associated Press, Le Monde, Bloomberg, The Economist, and Reuters.

Pegasus is understood to have been sold to the governments of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, most of which have been accused of human rights abuses or interfering with the freedom of the press.

The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi denied spying on 300 journalists and politicians and said "allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever."

The [Washington] Post said a forensic analysis of 37 of the smartphones on the list showed there had been several "attempted and successful" hacks, including those of two female friends of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In December 2020, Citizen Lab reported that almost 40 journalists at al-Jazeera had Pegasus spyware unwittingly installed on their phones and Amnesty International said last month the software had been put on Moroccan journalist Omar Radi's phone.

Radi investigates links between Moroccan politicians and business interests and in March 2020 he was given a suspended prison sentence for a tweet which criticised a judge who jailed some activists.

NSO has threatened to sue Forbidden Stories for defamation, saying its report was "full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories."

"We firmly deny the false allegations made in their report," NSO said, adding that it sells "solely to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of vetted governments"

NSO was founded in 2010 by Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie and is based in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv, a centre for Israel's hi-tech industries.