Known as Pegasus, this cyberweapon is widely considered as the most powerful piece of spyware technology ever made. Governments all over the world are scrambling to woo the Israeli government into providing them licenses to use the spyware, which was developed by an Israeli technology firm called the NSO Group.
Pegasus is known as a "zero-click hacking tool" used for infiltrating smartphones. Once it has entered the target phone, it can turn it into a 24-hour surveillance device. Everything from messages, photos and video recordings that the smartphone sends or receives can be copied without the owner even knowing that their phone had been hacked. (Related: Authoritarian governments using spyware to keep an eye on enemies of their regimes.)
If properly utilized, the Pegasus software can infect millions – potentially billions – of phones running either iOS or Android operating systems.
Pegasus spyware is known to have been used by the Saudi Arabian government to spy on Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and murdered dissident Jamal Khashoggi. More recently, the Israeli government itself has been accused of using Pegasus to carry out warrantless surveillance of its citizens.
Ukraine has reportedly been trying to get the Israeli government to allow the NSO Group to sell the Pegasus software since 2014, following the Russian invasion and occupation of Crimea and the declaration of independence of the pro-Russian breakaway states of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Since then, Ukraine has increasingly become the favorite target of Russian cyberattacks.
Fearing the strain the sale of the Pegasus to Ukraine would cause on Russian relations with Israel, the government at the time refused to budge. It even went so far as to impose a near-total embargo on selling any kind of weaponry and defense equipment to Ukraine.
In the case of the Baltic nation of Estonia, the country started its process of trying to purchase Pegasus in 2018. The Israeli government at first agreed to allow Estonia to have the system. Negotiations went far enough that the Estonian government even approved a down payment of $30 million to the NSO Group.
But the following year, a senior Russian defense official contacted Israeli intelligence agencies to notify them that Estonia planned to use the Pegasus system to hack into Russian phones. The Estonian government might have even considered using Pegasus on its citizens of ethnic Russian descent, who constitute nearly 24 percent of the population.
Israeli officials who had control over the sale of defensive equipment, including Pegasus, hotly debated whether to allow the sale. The Israeli Ministry of Defense inevitably blocked the sale and returned the Estonian government's down payment.
Western governments have strongly criticized Israel's close relationship with Russia since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. Many Ukrainian officials have also publicly called out Israel for only offering limited support to Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself made a virtual speech to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, criticizing the country for not providing it with defensive weapons systems, including the highly admired Iron Dome antimissile system, and for not joining Western nations in imposing economic sanctions on Russia.
Critics of the Israeli government have also pointed out that it was hypocritical when it blocked the sale to Ukraine and Estonia, who supposedly want to use the system as a means of defense. They noted that the Israeli government did not bat an eye when it sold the system to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Panama, Mexico, India and Hungary.
These governments, led by corrupt or authoritarian rulers, have used the Pegasus to spy on dissidents and critics, including journalists, human rights activists and political opponents.
Learn more about how Ukraine and Russia are escalating their conflict in cyberspace by reading the latest articles at CyberWar.news.
Watch this episode of the "Health Ranger Report" as Mike Adams, the Health Ranger, talks about how people can survive a cyberattack designed to take down America.