The battle for the most powerful cyber weapon in the world
The example of Mexico revealed both the promise and the dangers of working with the ONS. In 2017, researchers from Citizen Lab, a watchdog group based at the University of Toronto, reported that Mexican authorities used Pegasus to hack into the accounts of advocates of a soft drink tax, as part of a a wider campaign targeting human rights activists, politicians. opposition movements and journalists. More worryingly, it emerged that someone in the government had used Pegasus to spy on lawyers working to unravel the massacre of 43 students in Iguala in 2014. Tomás Zerón de Lucio, the head of the Mexican equivalent of the FBI, was one of the main authors of the federal government’s version of the event, which concluded that the students were killed by a local gang. But in 2016, he himself was investigated on suspicion of covering up the federal government’s involvement in the events. Now it has emerged that he could have used Pegasus in this effort – one of his official duties was to sign off on the purchase of cyber weapons and other equipment. In March 2019, shortly after Andrés Manuel López Obrador replaced Peña Nieto after a landslide election, investigators charged Zerón with torturing, kidnapping, and tampering with evidence in connection with the Iguala massacre. Zerón fled to Canada and then to Israel, where he entered the country as a tourist, and where – despite an extradition request from Mexico, which is now looking for him on additional charges of embezzlement – he remains today.
American reluctance sharing intelligence created other opportunities for NSO and for Israel. In August 2009, Panama’s new president, Ricardo Martinelli, fresh from a presidential campaign based on promises to “eliminate political corruption”, tried to persuade American diplomats in the country to give him surveillance to spy on “security threats as well as political opponents”. according to a State Department cable published by WikiLeaks. The United States “will not participate in any effort to expand wiretapping of domestic political targets,” the deputy chief of mission responded.
Martinelli tried a different approach. In early 2010, Panama was one of only six countries in the United Nations General Assembly to support Israel against a resolution to uphold the Goldstone Commission’s report on war crimes committed during the Israeli assault. of 2008-2009 on Gaza on the international agenda. A week after the vote, Martinelli landed in Tel Aviv on one of his first trips outside Latin America. Panama will always stand with Israel, he told Israeli President Shimon Peres, in thanks for “his guardianship of the capital of the world – Jerusalem”. He said he and his entourage of ministers, businessmen and Jewish community leaders came to Israel to learn. “We have come a long way, but we are very close because of the Jewish heart of Panama,” he said.
Behind closed doors, Martinelli took advantage of his trip to go shopping under surveillance. In a private meeting with Netanyahu, the pair discussed military and intelligence equipment Martinelli wanted to buy from Israeli vendors. According to a person who attended the meeting, Martinelli was particularly interested in the possibility of hacking BlackBerry’s BBM texting service, which was very popular in Panama at the time.
In two years, Israel was able to offer him one of the most sophisticated tools ever made. After installing NSO systems in Panama City in 2012, Martinelli’s government voted in favor of Israel numerous times, including opposing the United Nations’ decision to upgrade the status of the Palestinian delegation – 138 countries voted in favor of the resolution, with just Israel, Panama and seven other countries opposing it.
According to a later legal affidavit from Ismael Pitti, an analyst with Panama’s National Security Council, the equipment was used in a massive campaign to “violate the privacy of Panamanians and non-Panamanians” – political opponents, magistrates , union leaders, business competitors – all “without following due process”. Prosecutors later said Martinelli even ordered the team operating Pegasus to hack into his mistress’s phone. It all came to an end in 2014, when Martinelli was replaced by his vice-president, Juan Carlos Varela, who himself claims to have been the target of Martinelli’s espionage. Martinelli’s subordinates dismantled the spy system and the former president fled the country. (In November, he was acquitted by Panamanian courts of wiretapping charges.)
NSO was doubling its sales every year – $15 million, $30 million, $60 million. This growth has caught the attention of investors. In 2014, Francisco Partners, a US-based global investment firm, paid $130 million for 70% of NSO shares and then merged another Israeli cyberweapons firm, called Circles, into its new acquisition. Founded by a former senior AMAN officer, Circles offered its customers access to a vulnerability that allowed them to detect the location of any mobile phone in the world – a vulnerability discovered by Israeli intelligence 10 years earlier. The combined company could offer more services to more customers than ever before.