Earlier this week we saw how the BBC News website promoted Paul Danahar’s narrative driven speculations concerning the WhatsApp security flaw story.
On the same day that Danahar’s article appeared – May 14th – the afternoon edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour’ devoted over twelve and a half of its 53 minutes to the same story.
Iqbal: “We begin today with WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging service owned by Facebook used by 1.5 billion people. Well it turns out that encryption is not fail-safe after all. Hackers have been able to remotely install surveillance software on phones and other devices using a major vulnerability in the platform. WhatsApp said the attack targeted a select number of users and was orchestrated by an advanced cyber actor. They say they fixed the vulnerability on Friday and urged their users to update their apps as an added precaution. This is quite a complicated story with potentially far-reaching consequences. We’re going to try and unpick it for you. The surveillance software called Pegasus, developed by an Israeli company called NSO Group, has been identified as the software which has breached the encryption of WhatsApp. Let’s start with the technology then and speak to our technology correspondent Chris Fox who joins me in the studio.”
Chris Fox began by explaining the technical details of the story, including the fact that the spyware targeted WhatsApp messages at either end – not their encryption as claimed by Iqbal. In response to a request from Iqbal to “tell us about Pegasus, this software that’s been developed by this company NSO”, Fox clarified that – in contrast to the claim made by Iqbal in her introduction:
03:18 Fox: “We don’t know for sure that it was Pegasus involved in this attack. What we do know is that there was a flaw in WhatsApp that could let something like that in and that flaw has been closed but exactly what the software was is not clear because WhatsApp hasn’t said.”
That did not stop Iqbal from continuing to promote linkage between this story and Israel.
04:42 Iqbal: “Now human rights groups are anxious about this kind of surveillance software, obviously. Amnesty International has filed a petition in an Israeli district court asking to revoke the defence export licence of that cyber surveillance company NSO Group. The petitioners who filed to revoke that export licence claim the firm’s Pegasus software has been used in the past and may still be in use for the surveillance of human rights activists of Amnesty International and also other groups. But what evidence do groups like Amnesty have? I asked Danna Ingleton, deputy director of technology for Amnesty International, what evidence they had that will make a strong case for revoking this license.”
The responses given by Ingleton to Iqbal’s questions were the same as statements she made in an affidavit presented as part of the law suit filed with the Tel Aviv district court by Amnesty International and others the day before this programme was aired. Ingleton told of a colleague (who declines to be named) being sent a message on WhatsApp which Amnesty International believes was linked to an attempt to install spyware on his or her phone. In response to a question from Iqbal about “what’s happened” in such cases, Ingleton spoke of a “chilling effect” also presented in her affidavit.
At 08:38 Iqbal moved on to another interviewee.
Iqbal: “Let’s take a look now at how this technology has become what some people have described as a trophy weapon in the rivalries between various countries.”
Those “some people” would appear to be the Financial Times.
Iqbal: “I’m joined in the studio by now by Thomas Brewster: security, surveillance and privacy reporter for Forbes. Let’s start by getting you to outline a little bit more about what NSO Group is and what they do. We’ve heard that of course they do…ahm…use this Pegasus software to…give it [sic] to countries to prevent terrorist attacks, infiltrate drug cartels etc. But just give us a broader picture of who they are.”
Brewster: “If you think about NSO Group as one of many Israeli surveillance companies who are very, very talented at getting into people’s smartphones…”
Later on Iqbal interrupted Brewster to ask:
Iqbal: “Is it significant that these companies are in Israel or this particular one is in Israel?”
Brewster: “Well I mean Israel…the reason why Israel has this kind of cadre of businessmen who are very, very good at creating these kinds of companies and this kind of technology is because, you know, they come out of a country where they have to go into service. And if you’re technically very smart you get put in, you know, eh…either unit 8200 which is the kind of…eh….GCHQ, NSA equivalent or you go into Mossad and do technical things there or you’re a part of the IDF technology division, you know, there’s all…”
Iqbal [interrupts]: “The Israeli Defense Force.”
Brewster: “Exactly, yeah. All these incredibly talented units and you come out of those units and you either set up a consumer technology business, you set up a cyber security business or, like these handful of people, you set up a surveillance company that, you know, is bypassing cyber security.”
Iqbal: “And is it the case that this kind of software is used in terms of geo-politics in a region like the Middle East?”
Brewster: “If you’re able to do it like they did with WhatsApp today, very, very hard to trace back to who the actual owner of the product is. You know you can take guesses and a lot of them are geo-political guesses, you know…”
The signposting in this long item is of course amply evident. Despite Chris Fox having clarified near the beginning that “[w]e don’t know for sure that it was Pegasus involved in this attack”, rather than ‘unpicking’ the “complicated story” as promised in her introduction, Iqbal simply pursued her Israel theme for more than nine and a half additional minutes.
The day after this item was aired to audiences around the world Thomas Brewster made a discovery.
Remarkably though, ‘Newshour’ listeners heard nothing at all about that British connection to the company the BBC has chosen to portray as being linked to this story.