Amid the varied cast of people whose numbers appear on a list of individuals selected by NSO Group’s client governments, one name stands out as particularly ironic. Pavel Durov, the enigmatic Russian-born tech billionaire who has built his reputation on creating an unhackable messaging app, finds his own number on the list.
Durov, 36, is the founder of Telegram, which claims to have more than half a billion users. Telegram offers end-to-end encrypted messaging and users can also set up “channels” to disseminate information quickly to followers. It has found popularity among those keen to evade the snooping eyes of governments, whether they be criminals, terrorists or protesters battling authoritarian regimes.
In recent years, Durov has publicly rubbished the security standards of competitors, particularly WhatsApp, which he has claimed is “dangerous” to use. By contrast, he has positioned Telegram as a plucky upstart determined to safeguard the privacy of its users at all costs.
The data leak is a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers that, since 2016, are believed to have been selected as those of people of interest by government clients of NSO Group, which sells surveillance software. The data also contains the time and date that numbers were selected, or entered on to a system. Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based nonprofit journalism organisation, and Amnesty International initially had access to the list and shared access with 16 media organisations including the Guardian. More than 80 journalists have worked together over several months as part of the Pegasus project. Amnesty’s Security Lab, a technical partner on the project, did the forensic analyses.