Kazak Journalists Mull Pegasus Attack

Despite numbers apparently targeted, no official investigation is forthcoming.

Kazak Journalists Mull Pegasus Attack

Despite numbers apparently targeted, no official investigation is forthcoming.

Tuesday, 17 August, 2021


The Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting is a project of IWPR

When Kazak journalist Serikzhan Mauletbay discovered he was on the list of those targeted by Pegasus spyware, he was astonished.

“I thought I might be bugged, but I could not even imagine being on the Pegasus list,” said Mauletbay, whose work has including covering protests and reporting on the most recent parliamentary elections.

“I do not know how long they spied on me, why they did it, what were the results, or what they found,” he continued. “I only noticed that my phone lost its charge very quickly, but I could not tell for sure that there was surveillance.”

Research recently released by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) showed that countries around the world were using Pegasus, a spyware product made by the Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group. The company has insisted that their software was created to track terrorists and criminals, but in reality it has been used to spy on officials, journalists, activists and oligarchs.

Those targeted received an SMS message with a link, which when followed allowed the device to be monitored.  More recently, Pegasus has been updated to allow phones to be tracked simply by their number.

A number of people in Kazakstan were among those targeted, according to the investigation, including President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Prime Minister Askar Mamin and Almaty religious leader Bakhytzhan Sagintayev.

Another research article by OCCRP journalists concluded that the devices of a number of Kazak public figures and entrepreneurs were also targeted, including former energy minister and opposition leader Mukhtar Ablyazov, now accused of embezzling bank funds, billionaire businessman Bulat Utemuratov and philanthropist Kenes Rakishev.

Kazak officials have not announced any kind of investigation into the allegations.

Dauren Abaev, first deputy head of the presidential administration, told state television that the research was “unsubstantiated”.

“To be honest, anyone could be included in this list,” he continued. “Thus, it creates doubts in the country among the elite, journalists, etc. It seems to me that we need to follow the principle of reasonable scepticism.”

This was the only public comment on this issue from the state.

Riza Isaeva, a media journalism specialist working for the Minber outlet, said that the fact the Kazak authorities were clearly uninterested in investigating this case was telling.

“In my opinion, this is a clear manifestation of dictatorship,” she said.

In 2019, Tokayev first introduced the concept of Kazakstan as “a hearing state” that encouraged citizens to participate in developing public services and boost online access.

However, Isaeva said that the reaction to the Pegasus scandal and absence of discussion of covert surveillance showed that such openness was not genuine.

“I think that the “hearing state” should be able to hear without resorting to espionage,” she continued. “Probably, our government is afraid to fairly assess the situation in the country. Perhaps espionage is needed to prevent threats to power that may happen in the future. I find no other explanations.”

At the end of 2020, Kazakhstan ranked 31st in the Global Cybersecurity Index (GCI) according to the International Telecommunication Union. This measures legal, technical and organisational indicators, as well as development potential and international cooperation.

Information security specialist Kozyke Satybaldy said that although this was an impressive result, Kazakstan still had many weaknesses associated with cyber security.

He said that out of some 8,000 cybercrimes currently under investigation, around 5,000 had yet to be solved. This was a sign of the country’s poor capacity, he continued.

“Even if we have such spyware as Pegasus, our information security industry is currently unable to detect them,” Satybaldy said. “This is especially true for online surveillance… Therefore, it is very difficult for us to find out if there are any other spyware [systems] in Kazakstan and, if so, how many and how they are installed.”

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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