Opinions & Features July 26, 2021 at 09:00 am

How Rwanda spied on South Africa’s Ramaphosa with Pegasus software: report

Nii Ntreh July 26, 2021 at 09:00 am

July 26, 2021 at 09:00 am | Opinions & Features

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa attend the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, 24 January 2019. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

The President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, may have been the target of Rwandan espionage or monitoring, according to a worldwide investigation conducted by human rights organization Amnesty International, a discovery that is unlikely to improve already tense diplomatic ties between the two nations.

Amnesty International said on Wednesday, July 21, that new evidence uncovered by the Pegasus Project revealed that the phone numbers of 14 heads of state, including Ramaphosa’s, and those of France’s President Emmanuel Macron, Pakistan’s Imran Khan, and hundreds of government officials, had been selected as people of interest by The NSO Group, the Israeli firm that owned the spy software.

The evidence also indicated that Rwandan authorities may have utilized NSO Group’s spyware to target over 3,500 activists, journalists, and politicians, including Carine Kanimba, Paul Rusesabagina’s daughter and the star of Hotel Rwanda.

Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International, stated: “NSO Group cannot insist that its products are only used against criminals when more than 3,500 Rwandan activists, journalists, political opponents, foreign politicians, and diplomats have been selected as targets for NSO spyware.”

“NSO Group must immediately stop selling its equipment to countries with a track record of putting human right defenders and journalists under unlawful surveillance”, she added.

When Pegasus is installed on a smartphone, it basically provides an attacker full control over the phone. It can read and record messages and passwords, access social media, utilize GPS to find the target, and listen to and record the target’s conversations. Once the phone is compromised, end-to-end encryption, which is available through popular applications like Signal, does not protect against Pegasus.

NSO Group claimed in a series of answers that Pegasus is exclusively marketed to governments to track down criminals and terrorists, and that it has saved many lives. It disputed that its spyware had been routinely exploited and questioned the accuracy of the information collected by reporters.

As part of the inquiry, reporters received a list of over 50,000 numbers from around the world alleged to have been picked by NSO Group clients for targeting.

According to a significant investigation into the leak of 50,000 phone numbers of prospective monitoring targets, NSO Group’s spyware has been used to enable human rights violations on a huge scale throughout the world. Heads of state, activists, and journalists, as well as Jamal Khashoggi’s family, are among those targeted.

The Pegasus Project is a bold new collaboration between more than 80 journalists from 17 media organizations in ten countries, integrated by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based media non-profit, and Amnesty International, which conducted cutting-edge forensic tests on mobile phones to identify traces of spyware.

NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance firm, has received funding from prominent private equity companies Novalpina Capital and Francisco Partners, as well as a number of other investors. The rights-abusing corporation is also owned by pension funds in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Why was Ramaphosa’s number in the list? Professor Jane Duncan, an author and specialist on state monitoring, predicted that Ramaphosa, a powerful African politician, would be targeted. “However, it does pose a number of issues. Did the SSA [State Security Agency] utilize any and all technical methods to scan his equipment for hackers and deal with them when they happened?”

For years, relations between South Africa and Rwanda have been tense. In 2014, Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s former espionage chief and a critic of President Paul Kagame, was discovered murdered in a Johannesburg hotel room, sparking a diplomatic dispute between the two nations.

The National Prosecution Authority of South Africa issued arrest warrants for two Rwandans suspected of assassinating Rwandan critic Karegeya. Karegeya’s assassination, according to South Africa’s special investigation team, “were directly related to Rwandan government participation.”

In the years that followed, the two nations exchanged diplomatic expulsions amid allegations that Rwanda continued to pursue dissidents in South Africa. However, in June of this year, their foreign ministers met in Pretoria to mend fences.

The Pegasus espionage revelation arrives at an inopportune moment for Ramaphosa, who is struggling with his own internal intelligence fiasco, and is likely to undermine any recent improvements in the Rwanda-South Africa relationship.

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