President Cyril Ramaphosa has been identified in a leaked database at the heart of the Pegasus Project which includes cellphone numbers of government leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron, according to an investigation conducted by the Guardian.
The Pegasus Project is a collaborative journalistic investigation into the Israeli NSO Group and its clients. The Israeli company sells surveillance technology to governments worldwide. Its flagship product is Pegasus, spying software – or spyware – that targets iPhones and Android devices. Once a phone is infected, a Pegasus operator can secretly extract chats, photos, emails, and location data, or activate microphones and cameras without a user knowing.
The Guardian and its media partners throughout this week have been revealing the identities of people whose numbers appeared on the list. They include hundreds of business executives, religious figures, academics, NGO employees, union officials, and government officials, including cabinet ministers, presidents, and prime ministers.
Earlier this week the report by the Guardian revealed that one of the countries that bought or used the software is Rwanda. The latest revelations also show that Rwanda used the software to select the South African President in 2019.
The presence of a phone number in the data does not reveal whether a device was infected with Pegasus or subject to an attempted hack. However, the consortium believes the data is indicative of the potential targets NSO’s government clients identified in advance of possible surveillance attempts.
The report also mentions that the Kagame government may have used the software to spy on Carine Kanimba, daughter of Paul Rusesabagina, the imprisoned Rwandan activist who inspired the film Hotel Rwanda.
Amnesty International’s forensic analysis also found that Kanimba’s phone had been infiltrated since at least January this year.
According to the report, Amnesty International believes that the Kagame government – which has long been suspected of being a client of the Israeli surveillance firm NSO – has been able to monitor the 28-year-old’s private calls and discussions with US, European and British government officials.
In response to the Guardian investigation, a spokesperson for the Rwandan government said the country “does not use this software system … and does not possess this technical capability in any form”.
These revelations by the Guardian have raised concerns about the use of surveillance software for purposes other than pursuing criminals and terrorists for which the software was intended to be used. One concerned privacy activist who raised an alarm about such software is Edward Snowden.
He has said that he feared Pegasus was potentially so powerful that it, and spyware like it, should be banned from international sale. “If they find a way to hack one iPhone, they’ve found a way to hack all of them,” Snowden said, arguing spyware should be treated in a similar way to nuclear weapons where trade in the technology is heavily restricted.