The House Intelligence Committee recently held an open hearing on commercial cyber surveillance, also known as “mercenary spyware.”
The hearing focused on new threats posed specifically by privately made, foreign-developed spyware that are bringing capabilities long associated with top-tier nation states to smaller countries and the private sector. PPSA has previously reported on one such foreign spyware, in particular the spreading “zero-click” Israeli-developed Pegasus.
Pegasus can transmit itself seamlessly into a smartphone without a single click or action from the victim. From there, it can watch you through your camera, listen to you through your microphone, copy your messages, record your calls, extract all your images, and follow your movements. In just a few years, Pegasus has been acquired by dozens of countries and entities, from Saudi Arabia to Mexican cartels, and has already been used to deadly effect against dissidents and journalists. It represents the most sophisticated and widely available form of spyware yet developed.
Among the hearing’s testimonials was John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at The Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. His testimony provided a stark picture to Congress:
Railton testified (see the 18:50 mark), “Your phone can be on your bedside table at two in the morning. One minute, your phone is clean. The next minute, the data is silently streaming to an adversary a continent away. You see nothing.” He added it was “capabilities available only to a handful of nation-states … It is too late,” he said, “to put the tech back into the bottle, and so we must take strong action now…”
Another witness was Carine Kanimba, an American citizen born in Rwanda. Her testimony (29:05) details the story of her stepfather, Paul Rusesabagina, portrayed by Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda. Rusesabagina was the manager of the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali during the Rwandan genocide. He used the hotel to save more than a thousand refugees. Later, he and his family fled to the United States. Rusesabagina became a public speaker and was critical of the human rights violations of the Rwandan government and of the Rwandan President Paul Kagame. In August 2020, Kanimba’s stepfather was surveilled in the United States by the Rwandan government and lured from the family home in Texas. Rusesabagina was kidnapped in Dubai, transferred to Kigali, tortured, tried, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Kanimba became a vocal and effective activist about the abduction of her stepfather.
In February 2021, Carine Kanimba was notified (33:11) by forensics experts that her smartphone had been infected by Pegasus.
“I was mortified, and I am terrified,” she said. The forensics report showed “the spyware was triggered as I walked in with my mom into a meeting with the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs. It was active during the calls with the U.S. Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs team and the U.S. State department, as well as U.S. human rights groups.”
Not only was Kanimba’s phone infected, but so was the phone of her cousin with whom she lives.
“I am frightened by what the Rwandan government will do to me and my family next,” she said. “It keeps me awake that they knew everything I was doing. Where I was, who I was speaking with, my private thoughts and actions, at any moment they wanted. Unless there are consequences for countries and their enablers which abuse this technology, none of us are safe.”
The threat by mercenary spyware companies and malware is too serious to ignore.
“It has taken us too long to have this conversation,” concluded Railton. His testimony included several suggestions for Congress (22:15):
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