The Israeli technology company NSO Group, whose surveillance tool Pegasus was used last year to spy on at least 1,400 mobile phones and devices including those used by human rights activists, lawyers and journalists in India, is testing software to track the novel coronavirus pandemic sweeping through the globe.
“The use of technology in a medical context to monitor the spread of the coronavirus raises concerns about privacy. But using it properly and proportionately will not compromise privacy and can really save lives,” Shalev Hulio, founder and CEO of the NSO Group, has written in an opinion piece in an Israeli online publication that has been linked on the company’s website.
“All that is needed for a reliable and simple epidemiological investigation is – with the knowledge of the patient – to access cellular companies’ data and understand where the patient had been in the previous 14 days,” Hulio wrote in the article that first appeared online on March 23.
“It is important to appreciate that the historical information for each mobile subscription is already and routinely available to the cellular companies.
“This information only includes cellular locations for that subscription and does not require any collection of information from the device itself.
“In other words, with the exception of retrieving the historical location of the device, there is no listening in on calls and no data, personal information or messages that exist on the device can be gathered,” he said.
“The decision”, Hulio wrote, has been “approved by the Israeli government”. It allows the (Israeli) Ministry of Health to obtain “two critical pieces of data to help stem the spread of the virus – locating the places where those patients have been and mapping the people who were in their vicinity”, he said. “Through mapping the path of the patient, we can see the people around them and they can be directly alerted.” After the analysis has been completed, the government will have a “fairly accurate statistic of the number of people who were in the vicinity of verified patients” – however, at this stage “without any personal information or identification”.
The next step would be to “send a message to people with a high potential for infection who were in the vicinity of the patient and ask them to go into self-isolation”. This, Hulio said, would allow the authorities to build a “tree of infection” – important because medical officials are currently “struggling to track source of infection for a number of patients”.
Over the past few days, multiple tech websites have quoted unnamed sources and those claiming to have seen a demo of the tracking system, as saying that several governments and agencies around the world have carried out test runs of the NSO’s coronavirus tracking software.
The NSO Group has not denied these reports. An email sent to the company by The Indian Express was not answered.
Pegasus used a security vulnerability in the world’s most popular messaging app, WhatsApp, “to send malware to approximately 1,400 mobile phones and devices (‘Target Devices’). for the purpose of conducting surveillance of specific WhatsApp users (‘Target Users’)”, according to a lawsuit filed in the US last year.
WhatsApp confirmed to The Indian Express (October 31, 2019) that it was aware that journalists, lawyers and human rights activists in India were targeted for surveillance, and that it had contacted each of these ‘targets’. The NSO Group says it sells only to governments and institutional buyers and there were calls for an inquiry into the purchase of the Pegasus spyware from the governments of Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra.
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