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Legalised malware

20 July 2021

Increased surveillance by both state and private entities is causing growing paranoia within the ranks of the general public.

Well if it isn't, it should be.

We've all seen the unavoidable erasure of our right to privacy in exchange (we are told) for increased safety and security. While this is a deal that some of us would not choose to take, it is forced upon us anyway by force of law and threat of punishment by those who are apparently our (public) servants and elected representatives.

We also have the relentless snooping of large multi-nationals such as Google, Facebook, etc, who rely on building a comprehensive dossier of all our activities so as to better target their advertising.

However, a new, more direct threat to privacy, liberty and democracy has been uncovered and, as you might expect, it is technology-based.

According to multiple reports in the media, Israeli spyware has been used to hack the phones of a significant number of journalists, activists, politicians and others.

This spyware bypasses even the oft-touted security of Apple's iPhone products to effectively root these and other devices in a way that allows the attacker to gain full control of all elements such as cameras, microphones, memory and communications.

Once a phone has been infiltrated by this code, it holds no secrets from those who have planted it.

What's more, the attack is silent and requires no actions on the part of the phone's owner -- simply arriving as a seemingly empty SMS message from an unknown (or spoofed) sender.

That journalists figure amongst those targeted by this spyware should be of grave concern to everyone who believes in freedoms and democracy. How can a journalist do their job when investigating senstive stories if those they talk with can not be guaranteed anonymity?

The politicians also hit with this spyware may have effectively been spewing state secrets to unfriendly nations or parties as well.

It is claimed that as many as 50,000 phones have been compromised by this spyware, although the creator of the code, Israel's NSO Group Technologies, denies that the number would be that high.

NSO claims to carefully vet all customers to who it sells the spyware, so as to ensure it is not used for the wrong purpose one would assume. However, as most people these days are aware -- in today's world, given enough money, *any* purpose can sometimes become the "right purpose".

Apple's response to the news was to state that "we continue to work tirelessly to defend all our customers, and we are constantly adding new protections for their devices and data".

Obviously their report card should read: Must try harder.

Surprisingly, Stuff has a pretty good summary of the story in this article that is well worth a read.

I guess the takeaway from this is the same one we used to (and still should) apply to email communications: always assume your comments can be seen by *everyone*, *everywhere*.

This is perhaps another reason why I use an old-style non-smart flip-phone rather than an expensive and sophisticated smartphone. Mind you, there are still no guarantees that, if they wanted to, third parties couldn't listen in on what I'm saying and doing -- albeit they'd get pretty bored pretty quickly I suspect.

Perhaps the most saddening thing of all is that the creators of this spyware are seemingly immune to any form of legal repercussions. Israel will clearly take no action against its own and no other country has the jurisdiction to do so. Short of declaring war, NSO operates its business by aiding and abetting potentially criminal activities around the globe -- with impunity.

Would any NZ purveyor of malware be as lucky?

If I wrote a similar piece of code and sold it to others who then used it to spy on the Israeli PM, do you think I would go unpunished?

Oh, what was I thinking. I forgot that hypocrisy is the currency of politics world-wide.

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