The Ghanaian government purchased NSO’s Pegasus spyware in a shady deal that led to a probe by the West African country’s main intelligence agency, an Israeli investigative TV show revealed Wednesday. Although the Israeli cyberoffense firm initially denied the deal, it later admitted it had taken place but said the surveillance system was never operational.
The report by “Hamakor,” which airs in full on Thursday, reveals key details about NSO, shedding light on how its now-notorious Pegasus spyware is marketed.
It also includes footage of NSO employees in Ghana and their testimonies about how they trained local officials to use the cellphone surveillance system – which was purportedly bought by the country’s telecommunications authority, but was actually purchased by the government for political snooping ahead of a 2017 election.https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-0&features=e30%3D&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1483887597025992716&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.haaretz.com%2Fisrael-news%2Ftech-news%2Fnso-ghana-op-exposed-never-before-seen-pegasus-spyware-footage-workers-passports-1.10553725&sessionId=eeb992bc8b345e0dbed31cf8fd5e1a89483343b2&theme=light&widgetsVersion=75b3351%3A1642573356397&width=550px
According to the report, eight Israelis employed by NSO traveled to Ghana in 2016 to install the system and train locals to use it.
“I coached them on how to use it,” one employee told “Hamakor.” The report revealed security camera footage from the airport that showed the team of NSO workers, both men and women, arriving in the African country. The report even included shots of their passports and visas.
“I was there for a couple of days. We met with locals, but we just instructed them on how to use it. We never had access to targets and any time they would try to talk to us about what activity they wanted to use it for, we would stop them,” an NSO employee who traveled to the country told the reporter.
Never-before-seen footage of an actual Pegasus system collected by Ghanaian authorities was also broadcast. The footage is from Ghana’s central intelligence agency, which confiscated the system from what was described as a “secret apartment for an unknown client.”
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NSO’s past in Ghana is only partially known. A report from 2019 said the group sold its Pegasus system to the Ghanaian government sometime around 2016.
A business news portal called Ghana Business News reported a few years ago that the governmental auditor-general’s report for 2018 said the National Communications Authority, Ghana’s telecommunications regulator, had spent $4 million purchasing Pegasus hardware from a local representative of the Israeli company, called Infralocks Development Limited.
It quoted local reports saying that the hardware was delivered with documentation – but without the software. The auditor general said the system was acquired at the behest of the National Security Council, thus arousing concerns that it could be used for snooping on citizens.
However, according to the findings of Ghana’s central intelligence agency, reported by “Hamakor,” that is not the full story.
In December 2015, a deal was reportedly signed between NSO and NSO’s local representative – George Oppong – for the sale of the system for $5.5 million. Then a second deal for reselling the system was signed between Oppong and Ghana’s telecommunications body for $8 million.
Though the communications authority purchased the software, according to the Israeli body charged with overseeing defense exports that noted it was the client, it wasn’t the agency that actually received the Pegasus system.
The TV report revealed that the investigation by Ghana’s Bureau of National Investigations discovered it was purchased by the security council to spy on the government’s political rivals a few months ahead of the country’s 2017 election.
Pegasus’ purchase was also reportedly funded by political donations, and the system was stored in an apartment reportedly owned by Ghana’s national security adviser, who was a political figure.
Alongside the videos and workers’ testimonies, the “Hamakor” report also revealed the contract, shedding light on how Pegasus is marketed and what capabilities it is said to have.
The contract explains how Pegaus can break into a cellphone – whether that be an iPhone, Android or even Blackberry – and provide full access to the phone, its contents and location. Moreover, the contract says, Pegasus can turn any infected phone into a secret microphone and camera, which can be operated remotely and provide a live feed to the operator.
The phone, the contract presented in the report said, would keep working without its owner knowing it was broadcasting all of the information.
The contract also detailed how infections are achieved. In a “zero-click” infection, for instance, “infection is done by silently pushing an installation to the device. This method does not require the target engagement.”
The other option is to send a tainted SMS, or “crafted message” as the contract described it, in which an “innocent message is sent to the target device that contains text and a link. The message content and link lure the target to click (only once) and browse to an innocent website. Clicking the link triggers a silent installation in the background.”
The contract said that any web address can “be used as the installation link.” It also said that Pegasus continues to work even after software updates and could also break into encrypted apps like Telegram and WhatsApp.
An NSO spokesperson denied the report’s claims, telling Israel’s Channel 13 News that it “has never been in Ghana and our system was never used there.”
Oppong was one of five individuals charged for crimes related to their roles in the purchase of the NSO system. He was acquitted but three others, all government officials, were found guilty and received jail sentences, a May 2020 report from Ghana Business News and other outlets said.
The TV report and the Pegasus contracts also cite an Israeli lawyer, Pninat Yanay, as being part of the deal and receiving tens of thousands of dollars for her role in mediating the sale. Responding to the report, Yanay said she represented a U.S. company and could not comment on the deal.
“Hamakor” said the Pegasus deal fell apart after a few months over financial issues with the mediator. And despite its initial denial of any involvement in Ghana, NSO did later confirm that there was a deal but the system was never operational.
NSO claimed the fact that the deal never went through showed that its oversight works, and that once there was any danger of potential wrongdoing, it ended all communications with the Ghanaians.
In 2017, after the election, the Ghanaian government hired an Israeli firm called Megido to investigate the NSO deal and they found, together with the local intelligence agency, that corruption was involved.