Cyber surveillance concept

Book review: ‘Pegasus: The Story of the World’s Most Dangerous Spyware’

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An investigation into misuse of digital information weaponry reads like a noir thriller for the 21st century.

It’s not just the wisdom of crowds that says your smartphone is an extension of the mind. That small electronic device, which acts as your personalised atlas, calendar, post office, telephone, library and camera, is becoming formally recognised as a fully fledged external memory. And, the argument goes, if governments have no right to access the thoughts inside your head, why should they have the right to access the data on the machine to which we outsource our memory? Yet, as is revealed with frightening plausibility in Laurent Richard and Sandrine Rigaud’s investigation into Pegasus, it’s happening. Now.

A book-length piece of investigative journalism, ‘Pegasus: The Story of the World’s Most Dangerous Spyware’ (MacMillan, £20, ISBN 9781529094831) does no more or less than what it says on the label. On the one hand, it examines what the authors claim to be the world’s most powerful cyber-surveillance system, “available to any government that can afford its multi-million price tag”. We are told that the system’s creator – the privately owned Israel-based NSO group – markets the product on the strength of its ability to thwart terrorists and catch criminals.

But on the other, the investigation alleges that the software is falling into the hands of authoritarian regimes, opening the door to spying on “thousands of innocent people around the world: heads of state, diplomats, human rights defenders, lawyers, political opponents and journalists”. The problem with Pegasus is that its strength is also its weakness; the same undetectability that can weed out the ‘bad guys’ can be turned on itself. The system, that can track a person’s daily movement in real time, gain control of their device’s microphones and cameras, raid digital images, comms and passwords, doesn’t care which side you’re on. Every smartphone, it seems, is vulnerable to the digital bolt-cutter with which governments can silence its critics and citizenry.

Of course, you can’t get a non-fiction book like this to print unless you’re prepared to ramp up the fear factor. But you get the feeling that the authors haven’t had to inflate their findings too much to make them read like a noirish thriller in which 21st century digital information weaponry is used against civil society. As their operation unfolds, the authors reveal how thousands of lives have been affected by having their phones hacked, and how governments and corporations are ‘laying waste to human rights’. You can’t help feeling that these revelations will have come with great personal risks for the duo.

As US television news anchor Rachel Maddow says in her introduction to Richard and Rigaud’s compelling account of the Pegasus Project saga, what we have in our hands is an “edge-of-your-seat procedural about the heroes who found this dragon and then set out to slay it”. Pegasus is already a strong contender for technology book of the year.

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