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As U.S., allies condemn Chinese cyberattacks, report exposes governments’ use of spyware

The Biden administration and a large group of allies called out China for state-sponsored, international hacking Monday. A consortium of media outlets also published an investigation revealing how governments hacked into their opponents' phones with sophisticated, Israeli-made software. Nick Schifrin joins Judy Woodruff to discuss what the revelations mean and how it affects the digital landscape.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There are two stories today that show the threat of governments using cyber tools to target their adversaries, both internationally and within their own borders.

    And to discuss that, I'm joined by Nick Schifrin with a lot of reporting to do.

    So, Nick, first on China, what is — tell us what it is that the U.S. and its allies are saying.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This is an unprecedented international naming and shaming of Chinese hacking and Chinese espionage.

    For the first time, NATO, along with the E.U., Japan, Australia, New Zealand, joined the U.S. and accused China of working with cyber criminals in order to conduct hacking. And they also formally accused China of that big Microsoft Exchange server hack from earlier this year infected more than 100,000 servers worldwide.

    So I talked to James Lewis from the think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies earlier today about the scope of the challenge posed by China and also today's announcement.

  • James Lewis:

    They are the most aggressive espionage component we have in the world, more aggressive than Russia.

    This is a huge step forward, because we have got many countries now joining the U.S. in condemning China for its really rampant cyber-espionage. And the fact that you have NATO, E.U. countries, Australia, it is a significant effort that the Chinese are probably shocked to find there is such consensus about what they are doing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But what today's announcement did not include is any punishment on China.

    And I talked to a senior congressional aide about that, a frequent critic of China. This aide praised the administration for getting allies on board, but said that the response was weak because it didn't include punishment, because China only listens to actions, and not words, in this aide's words, and that China will continue its hacking without paying a higher price.

    Now as for administration officials, they say, look, this is a first stage, and — quote — "No one action can change Chinese behavior."

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, Nick, separately from this, you have today the Department of Justice issuing a new indictment against Chinese hackers.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, so this is a grand jury, indicted Chinese intelligence agents for a worldwide hacking, a worldwide cyber espionage, economic espionage campaign.

    The Department of Justice says it was designed to aid Chinese-sponsored and Chinese-owned companies inside China, to give them stolen technology, so the companies themselves wouldn't have to create it themselves, a kind of shortcut to good technology.

    And this is the FBI notice for the four hackers. They say these hackers targeted trade secrets, intellectual property, other high-value information from companies, universities, and governments across multiple sectors from the NIH to Navy submarines to Ebola research.

    And this was all over the world, Judy, from the U.S., to the U.K., to Cambodia, to South Africa, exactly the kind of action that the U.S. and its allies are calling out today.

    Now, when it comes to China, we took a look at the Chinese nationalist tabloid Global Times' response. They accused the U.S. of stirring up a new geopolitical dispute by turning cyber frictions into major conflicts.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, as we mentioned, there is another hacking story today.

    So, the question is what is Pegasus, and what has a consortium of media companies uncovered here

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This is a winnow into technology that can turn your phone into a spying tool and the governments willing to use it.

    So, what is Pegasus? It is a software created by an Israeli company called NSO Group. And the company says it is designed to attack terrorists and other serious criminals. But the investigation reveals governments all over the world used this software to target opponents, whether journalists, opposition politicians, business executives, even activists.

    And it is all over the world. Take a look at this map from Mexico to Morocco to Rwanda to the UAE to India. This map was produced by the nonprofit Forbidden Stories. They are the ones who spearheaded this, alongside 17 media organizations.

    The technical capacity was provided by Amnesty International, whose secretary-general, Agnes Callamard, spoke to me earlier today.

  • Agnes Callamard:

    That technology is a weapon.

    And we — what the investigation is showing is that the spyware is misused to such an extent that we have here a weapon that is — the could blow up at any moment. It is undermining democracy. It is undermining human rights. It is undermining judicial system. It is undermining fair trials. It could be a threat to peace and security. It must be regulated to a complete moratorium.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In a statement, NSO Group called The Washington Post's version of this story flimsy and said — quote — "NSO Group's technologies have helped prevent terror attacks, gun violence, car explosions and suicide bombings. NSO Group is on a lifesaving mission and the company will faithfully execute this mission undeterred, despite any and all continued attempts to discredit it on false grounds."

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Interesting.

    And, Nick, we note that most of those targeted are in Mexico?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, this was interesting.

    So, up to 15,000 phones in Mexico were targeted by a Mexican client who employed Pegasus to target as many as 15,000 phones. And one in particular belonged to a journalist named Cecilio Pineda Birto. That is him right there.

    We wanted to bring him up because, back in 2017, he was investigating local police, local politicians colluding with a drug cartel. That is when his phone ended up on the target list for Pegasus twice, again, by a Mexican client, using Pegasus. Shortly after, he was shot and killed.

    Now, Mexico is the most deadly country in the world for journalists. There is no confirmed connection between Pegasus and his murder. But the people who are calling on the NSO Group to stop exporting this software, people are calling on Israel to not allow it to be exported and for governments not to employ it, say this is a matter of life and death.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This is so disturbing. Even without the proven links, the picture is so disturbing.

    Nick Schifrin, thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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