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PoliticsGlobal issues

Surveillance from Watergate to Pegasus

July 22, 2021

Surveillance methods used by governments and others have become more and more sophisticated — and cheaper and easier to implement as well.

Close-ups of two computers showing the website of Israel-made Pegasus spyware
Pegasus is a spyware designed to infiltrate smartphones and turn them into surveillance devicesImage: Mario Goldmann/AFP/Getty Images

About 50,000 phone numbers were possible targets for surveillance using Pegasus spyware, according to  an investigation by a group of media organizations. Clients of the Israeli cyber arms firm NSO Group that produces the spyware used the app to infiltrate the communication devices of journalists, activists, political leaders and state officials around the world.

Emmanuel Macron, the France president
French president Emmanuel Macron was among the politicians targeted by the spywareImage: Patrick Bernard/abaca/picture alliance

Not very long ago, spying on such a large number of individuals would have cost an immeasurable amount of time, labor and money. But now, cyber surveillance is an effective and effortless way to monitor rivals and suppress political dissent.

Here are five snapshots of history that show how surveillance methods have developed over the years to become off-the-shelf commodities in recent years.

1. Watergate: CIA spying on Americans

In June 1972, four men were arrested trying to break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Office Building in Washington, DC, to steal documents. The arrest of the burglars, who had ties with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), created a massive scandal in the United States. It not only forced then-President Richard Nixon to resign but also had dramatic repercussions for the CIA, the civilian foreign intelligence agency of the US.

Most of all, the whole affair exposed the CIA's spying on American citizens on US soil, most notably in the 1960s, in violation of its own charter. This surveillance, predominantly targeting the anti-war movement, was carried out in a fairly traditional way. CIA agents covertly joined the "New Left” circles in universities and elsewhere and learned the culture and the lingo to later monitor their movements, their members and their sympathizers.

Agents used the same methods in their overseas missions, where they were deployed to gather information on foreign countries. 

2. Echelon: Five eyes monitoring the entire world

Echelon was a surveillance program operated by the US along with Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, countries that became known as the Five Eyes. Established in the early 1970s, the program's initial aim was to monitor the military and diplomatic communications of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies during the Cold War.

But this spying alliance did not terminate its activities after the end of the Cold war. Instead, it grew into a complex and extensive conglomerate that was, according to a European Parliament investigation, able to monitor global data traffic through satellite transmissions, internet and telephone lines. ECHELON's targets were now British ministers, any political organizations considered slightly subversive and even commercial and industrial competitors of the Five Eyes.

3. Global surveillance: The NSA eavesdropping on everybody

Echelon was not the only project that tapped into global communications. In 2013, former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden disclosed how the US's National Security Agency (NSA) and British intelligence organizations worked closely together to mine phone and internet data. The US and UK have maintained that their espionage projects are necessary to combat security threats and terrorism and are authorized democratically. But the revelation that leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel,  along with millions of other individuals, were watched by the NSA cast doubt on these justifications.

Snowden's disclosures put the spotlight on what has become known as the mass surveillance industry, a multibillion-dollar industry that has boomed phenomenally since 2001.

Edward Snowden
Snowden revealed the NSA spying scandal in 2013Image: picture-alliance/MAXPPP/Kyodo

4. Tech companies join the game

Snowden's revelations made evident a wide-ranging array of surveillance possibilities to world leaders. The demand for spyware has since grown, and some tech companies have made fortunes selling them to governments.

Hacking operations and the infiltration of communication devices have become a common way of obtaining information for governments and even private companies. Smartphones, social media, and artificial intelligence technology have made it even easier.

5. Pegasus: Spyware sold as weapons

Pegasus is a software that secretly turns phones into listening devices and reads their encrypted contents.

Developed by Israel's NSO company, the spyware requires a government license for export because it is considered a weapon. Countries including Hungary, India, and even Saudi Arabia have bought it.

NSO spokespeople have saidthat they sell their spyware only for use against serious criminals and terrorists. But governments, especially the authoritarian ones,  have a record of labeling dissidents as terrorists.

Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi
Pegasus was used to spy on Jamal Khashoggi's wife months before his murderImage: Alexandra Wey/KEYSTONE/picture-alliance

Amnesty International says that Pegasus has played a role in the persecution and killings of journalists in Mexico, Azerbaijan and India and has targeted the devices of others working with major international media such as The Associated Press, CNN, The New York Times, and Reuters.

Friends and relatives of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed inside the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul in 2018, have also come under such surveillance.

Multiple lawsuits by alleged victims have been filed against NSO Group. The outcome might bring about what critics have long called for: global regulation of the sales of commercial hacking tools.