The proverb says that if you don't pay, the product is you.
It is a simple moral to explain that someone has to pay for the installations where you store your photos, videos, emails and messages and that it is convenient to know who that someone is and what they get in exchange for paying you for the server.
But it is not the definitive formula to identify privacy abuses in the connected world because, when you pay for it, the product can still be you.
Even when you pay six million euros to access the phone of a foreign prime minister or a regional president.
The fundamental characteristic of platform capitalism is not price.
Digital platforms such as Google or Facebook did not need to give away the product for free to implement their strategy, although it has been extremely useful in destroying the competition and accelerating its implementation.
What they needed was an opaque and absolute control of the infrastructures that make the service possible.
The model is characterized by its dependence, not by its price.
For offering services that depend on their infrastructures to record what users do on them, when they do it, from where, how many times, with whom and with whom.
That kind of information is called metadata and it is the information that moves the wheels of the 21st century.
It does not matter that the communications are encrypted from end to end.
It is not its content that has value.
It is not necessary to decrypt the messages that a user sends at two in the morning when you know who receives them and in what direction they are later.
There is also no need to access the information that a state agency secretly extracts from a phone when you know who is spying on whom, how many times, from where, for how long and how much they are willing to pay to do it.
These metadata are the treasure of the company that controls the antennas, the servers and the rest of the infrastructure that allow your operations, whether it charges you or not.
Opacity is not technically necessary,
Pegasus is the Cambridge Analytica of spyware
the biggest media star in a market in the midst of a bubble, after a decade of effervescent expansion in a vulnerable world, plagued by technological dependency and a political inability to understand the seriousness of its condition.
Naturally, it is possible to know with absolute precision who has paid to use Pegasus, who has used it to infect which phones, how many times, at what time and from which room.
It's the metadata that is recorded when you use the infrastructure of a company called NSO Group, which stores that information from all of its customers around the world in real time.
That information is worth much more than six million dollars.
And we know that it has at least one sponsor and beneficiary: the Government of Israel.
In a recent investigation,
The New York Times
argued that Benjamin Netanyahu used Pegasus as a diplomatic tool to approach governments around the world, from Mexico to India, passing through Hungary, Poland, Panama or Saudi Arabia.
The proof that he provided is a correlation between the diplomatic visits of the then prime minister and favorable vote changes to Israel in the General Assembly of the United Nations.
But he got something much more important: a window into his most secret operations, his most hidden concerns, his internecine wars and his points of vulnerability.
Like the dependence on the large platforms of the digital ecosystem, the asymmetry of power is total and is on the side of the platform.
"You should never ask anyone for anything," warns Voland the Devil in
The Master and Margarita
, "especially if they are more powerful than you."
As of 2019, at least one US intelligence agency was licensed to use Pegasus.
The FBI assures that he never used it;
We don't know if it's true.
But we do know that, in November, the US government's industry and security department added NSO Group to its blacklist, prohibiting any commercial activity with the company in the US. The Biden administration claimed that this was a show of rejection for its role in the harassment of activists, human rights lawyers and journalists, especially the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but also because such associations endanger national security.
Few countries have been more codependent than Israel and the United States;
few intelligence agencies more sisterly than the NSA and the CIA and the Mossad and the Israeli Army's Special Operations Division.
The NSA itself explains, in a document leaked by the American Civil Liberties Union, that they share "access, interception, targets, language, analysis, and reporting."
Spying on activists is unlikely to be the real reason for their divorce, considering the track record of US agencies and platforms.
It's also unlikely that Pegasus respects American citizens more than his own.
When the Forbidden Stories media consortium published a leaked list of 50,000 potential NSO Group client targets last summer, some Israeli media celebrated the absence of numbers belonging to citizens of the State of Israel.
It seemed proof that the alleged exclusion perimeters of Pegasus were respected - the technology is called
-, according to which the spyware self-destructs when it infects a citizen of that State or of clients and allies such as the United States. Last February , however, the financial daily
published that the police had used Pegasus to spy on people involved in Benjamin Netanyahu's trial for corruption, including advisers to the former prime minister, several mayors, senior officials in the Ministry of Economy and his son Avner.
Also on the list were members of the workers' union, activists, journalists from the digital newspaper
and businessman Rami Levy.
The former prime minister's lawyers were accused of having leaked that list with the secret intention of invalidating the trial for unlawful wiretapping.
“It is a black day for the State of Israel,” Netanyahu declared.
“Something unthinkable has happened here.
Police illegally spying, with the most aggressive tool in the world, against countless civilians.”
Police have been spying on civilians with NSO technology since at least 2013.
In the world of cyber espionage there is another cliche, a concept recently invoked by Sophie in 't Veld, the MEP who chairs the investigation committee into the use of Pegasus and other spyware in EU countries.
She says that all the secret technologies used by a government against another country always turn against their own citizens.
"Not only do they see other countries as a danger," In 't Veld said in an interview, "but they see their own citizens as a threat, and it is the citizens who now become the suspects."
Pegasus has shown that this saying holds true without exception.
Governing by spying is a drug that destroys democracies and endangers national security.
The only way to win is not to play.
is a journalist and author of
The Enemy Knows the System: Manipulating Ideas, People, and Influences After the Attention Economy
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