Hacking Attacks on Politicians’ Phones Becoming Permanent Problem

Many government officials are finding that the spyware used by many nations to combat terrorist plots is being more commonly deployed against them. The vulnerable technology inherent in mobile phones is something governments are going to have to learn to adapt to handling, in that there is no way to conduct business without using communication systems.

At least nine U.S. diplomats, multiple staffers for U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and French President Emmanuel Macron have all had their mobile phones hacked in the last few years.

Many Western governments have put Pegasus software produced by Israel’s NSO Group in the center of their systems that track terrorists, pedophile predators, and drug kingpins like Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

The Pegasus system can put tracking code into a target’s mobile device secretly. After a device is infected, government intelligence agencies can access personal information and secretly activate microphones and cameras. The United Nations human rights office has recently called on member nations to more stringently regulate the use of spyware.

No international treaties or accords have restricted the use of spyware by governments. Even when a nation might decide to prohibit the use of Pegasus, other tech companies pop up quickly to supply spyware technology.

Many government officials have had to adopt low-tech means to combat spyware hacking. Spanish Catalan President Pere Aragones has reportedly been leaving his phone in separate rooms when he enters sensitive meetings.

Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Marco Rubio (R-FL) said that going after spyware groups is “an enormous challenge” because they operate “outside of government control and without set addresses.”

Rubio said that he tells his staff that they should assume anything they do on any device that is connected to the internet is vulnerable to attack.

Pegasus creates a conundrum for governments, as it operates by design to be undetectable and works to exploit undisclosed vulnerabilities in mobile operating systems. The spyware also does very well in its design to be invisible. It can typically be installed on a device through a simple text message.

Some governments are attempting to regulate the use of the Pegasus software. The Biden administration took steps last year to “blacklist” the developers of the system, adding them to the list of firms considered to be a threat to U.S. national security.

Senate Intelligence Committee member Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said in an interview that the commercial spyware industry is a threat to democracies around the world, as it makes a “whole bunch of sophisticated tools” easily available to a “dictator that has a fat checkbook.” Wyden has led a group of lawmakers in calling for sanctions on spyware developers, including NSO Group.

Senior researcher for Citizen Lab John Scott-Railton told reporters that an arrangement where “every country in the world has the ability to hack the head of state of every country” is “terrifying.” He added that the Pegasus developers have unfortunately set the world on the road to being “less secure and less safe.”