Pegasus and the Horsefeathers

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By Tony Deyal

The Phantom had “Hero”. Roy Rogers swore by (instead of “at”) “Trigger”. Then there were the Lone Ranger’s “Silver” and my all-time favourite, “Pegasus”, the immortal winged horse of Greek Mythology who was eventually assigned by Zeus, the father of all gods and humans, to carry his thunder and lightning during battle. Yet that “Pegasus” was famous for helping gods and heroes achieve great victories, and his name, up to recently, stood for freedom and the eternal spring of imagination and creativity.

Recently, we found out that of all the islands in the region, Trinidad is the only one that has its own “Pegasus” and it is a horse of a different colour, calorie and callousness. The New York Times sees Pegasus, which is owned and has been developed by an Israeli company, the NSO Group, as the “World’s Most Prominent Cyberweapon”. This Pegasus includes, among its bag of tricks, the ability to extract text messages, contact lists, calendar records, emails, instant messages and GPS locations. Using a capability called “room tap”, Pegasus can gather sound in and around the room using the phone’s own microphone.

The Times adds: “Pegasus can use the camera to take snapshots or screen grabs. It can deny the phone access to certain websites and applications, and it can grab search histories or anything viewed with phone’s web browsers. And all of the data can be sent back to the agency’s server in real-time.”

In 2016, having taken legal action against the Government Information Service (GIS) for breaching my contract, I found out that my lawyers could not contact me at all on my phone or email. I realised that only the people in charge of the national communications system had the power and technology to cause that to happen. Fortunately, I had absolutely nothing to hide and when several people who work at the ministry of national security asked to be my Facebook friends, I welcomed them. Eventually, they got fed up, maybe of trying to find a reason for the government to come after me, and gave me up in disgust (I hope).

Journalist and president of the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT), Ira Mathur, writing in the Trinidad Guardian, quoted attorney, Timothy Hamel-Smith: “In response to allegations of the introduction of Pegasus Spyware, the prime minister has not denied that spying is being conducted in Trinidad and Tobago. Regrettably, I have not seen any reference to the prime minister stating that any such conduct is being conducted in accordance with the laws of Trinidad and Tobago. This must be done… An allegation has been made that spying is being conducted by a constable appointed by the minister of national security.”

Now Pegasus is already a horse with a bad name and it is clear that the governments of Israel and Trinidad and Tobago are already in a seemingly very “stable” relationship. The question then is if a constable is the chosen jockey, does that show a lack of horse sense? Or is it that while you can lead the real Pegasus to water but you can’t make it drink, you can also lead a Trinidad politician or government minister to the same source but you can’t make him think. Even worse, that hotshot is sure to sink into deep manure and take the credibility of the government with him. In fact, in terms of governments, many are called but few are as cozen as this wild bunch. So, even though King Richard the Third no longer pleads, “My kingdom for a horse”, what we might hear soon is a King-Dumb demanding and spending more of our money for a Pegasus.

Some of you might think that Pegasus is a nine-day wonder and the article has already exceeded that time frame, but I am persevering with it because The Times makes the new Pegasus even more scary: “Its tracking software and hardware can install itself in any number of ways including ‘over the air stealth installation’, tailored text messages and emails, through public Wi-Fi hot spots rigged to secretly install NSO Group software or the old-fashioned way, by spies in person.”

In Trinidad and Tobago, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that food prices reached levels not seen in more than two decades and had risen by 20 percent in one year. The government has announced “adjustments” in gas prices ranging from $1 per litre to $.050. However, it is believed that “Pegasus” is flying even higher than before and its costs are as astronomical as its visits to Zeus at the top of Mount Olympus.

Even though I am convinced that the cost of “Pegasus” has risen significantly over the years, The New York Times posted these already immense costs in 2016: “The NSO Group prices its surveillance tools by the number of targets, starting with a flat US$500,000 installation fee. To spy on 10 iPhone users, NSO charges government agencies US$650,000; US$650,000 for 10 Android users; US$500,000 for five BlackBerry users; or US$300,000 for five Symbian users…One hundred additional targets will cost US$800,000, 50 extra targets cost US$500,000, 20 extra will cost US$250,000 and 10 extra costs US$150,000, according to an NSO Group commercial proposal. There is an annual system maintenance fee of 17 percent of the total price every year thereafter.”

What gets me is NSO’s boast that the buyer gets “unlimited access to a target’s mobile devices” and can “remotely and covertly collect information about your target’s relationships, location, phone calls, plans and activities – whenever and wherever they are.” Moreover: “It leaves no traces whatsoever.” Except, I would think, big holes in the wallets, bank accounts, vehicle usage, and diets or food intakes of the citizens of any country, including Trinidad and Tobago, where Pegasus reigns.

The Trinidad and Tobago government, having experienced a wipe-out in the prime minister’s home island, Tobago, and facing a local government election in Trinidad, seems to prefer to flog a dead horse rather than drown it in midstream. Inputting a policeman to manage Pegasus, they might have put the cartoon before the horse but that obviously does not stop the government from getting off its high horse. Even though the Constitution makes it clear that it is an offence to intercept communications of anyone unless it is via a warrant issued by a judge, Hamel-Smith points out: “In this context, the public has every right to be concerned about the motive for spying as it represents a diminution of their fundamental right to privacy…We want reassurance beyond the histrionic exchanges and evidence that spyware is used as a shield and not a sword.”

From my perspective, this particular Pegasus is a sword that should immediately be placed in a scabbard and hung in the museum. I warn my readers throughout the Caribbean that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, not by Pegasus or a policeman in a ministry, but by all of us who value our freedom and our countries. Please ensure you keep the politicians on a short rein, don’t give them a free rein and don’t give credence to their never-ending “Horsefeathers”.

*Tony Deyal was last seen advising that you keep your eyes open. A nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse, especially Pegasus.

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