Israel’s Pegasus spyware: How does it hack into your phone?

NSO Group software can record your calls, copy your messages

At least one number once used by Prime Minister Imran Khan was among the tens of thousands of smartphone numbers, including those of activists, journalists and politicians from around the world that were targeted through Israeli spyware. 

According to a report, India was one of the ten countries which have been listed as a client of the NSO Group and its Pegasus malware. However, the report did not confirm if the attempt on PM Imran’s number was successful or not.

Meanwhile, Israeli Publication, Haaretz, reported that several Pakistani officials, Kashmiri freedom fighters, Indian Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, and even an Indian supreme court judge were targetted.

What is Pegasus spyware?

Pegasus is the hacking software – or spyware – that is developed, marketed and licensed to governments around the world by the Israeli company NSO Group. It has the capability to infect billions of phones running either iOS or Android operating systems.  

It is the name for perhaps the most powerful piece of spyware ever developed. Once it has wormed its way on to your phone, without you noticing, it can turn it into a 24-hour surveillance device.

It can copy messages you send or receive, harvest your photos and record your calls. It might secretly film you through your phone’s camera, or activate the microphone to record your conversations.

Old version

Pegasus first became public knowledge when the software was reportedly used to attempt to hack into the iPhone of an Arab human rights activist in 2016. iPhone maker Apple had then released an iOS update days after the alleged incident, which reportedly patched the vulnerability that was being targeting using Pegasus to hack into its phones.

Next in 2017, cybersecurity researchers found that the software could also exploit android-based smartphones. The finding led to new security updates. Pegasus has also been at odds with Facebook, which sued the NSO Group for creating the surveillance software in 2019.

How does Pegasus hack a phone?

Due to the spyware’s sophistication, it can be hardly detected on a person’s phone, but Amnesty International’s Forensic Methodology Report reported that we can look for traces that it leaves.

The report highlighted that initial traces were recorded on Safari’s browsing history, but eventually, such suspicious redirects were found to take place in other apps as well. The report mentions a whopping total of 700 Pegasus-related domains.

Another method of spotting Pegasus, as described in the report, is that it could be detected through the iOS “records of process executions “and their respective network usage in two specific files”.

However, a regular person cannot detect the spyware on their phones and only experts can do this, the publication said, adding that Amnesty would soon release its tools through which it had detected Pegasus.