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Keeping Pegasus on the wing: legitimizing cyber espionage

Dan, K. & Carmi, E. ORCID: 0000-0003-1108-2075 (2023). Keeping Pegasus on the wing: legitimizing cyber espionage. Information, Communication and Society, pp. 1-31. doi: 10.1080/1369118x.2023.2245873


NSO Group is an Israeli cyber surveillance firm notorious for Pegasus – an intrusive malware capable of covertly taking control of smartphones and remotely extracting their contents. In 2019, after a series of unflattering reports on governments’ use of Pegasus to infiltrate the phones of activists and journalists, NSO embarked on an uncharacteristically public legitimation campaign. This article focuses on this campaign and explores how this otherwise secretive spyware company publicly legitimizes its surveillance. Based on an empirical analysis of hundreds of public documents across various media, we explore NSO's legitimacy management practices and identify the audiences and contexts of this legitimation. Our analysis identified four legitimation practices: securitization, Zionist patriotism, ethics washing, and normalization. We argue that these legitimation strategies operate across two interrelated axes of legitimation: a local axis that echoes a particularly Israeli ‘security-driven populism’; and a universal axis that follows Silicon Valley's ethics washing. We show that these legitimation axes are designed to simultaneously ensure the company's survivability and to sustain surveillance realism – the perception of surveillance as the only viable option This article contributes to the emerging literature on cyber surveillance firms and to the burgeoning research on the legitimation of surveillance by shedding light on the discursive infrastructures behind contemporary cyber espionage. Moreover, while surveillance is often understood as a global phenomenon, this article highlights the need to focus on the local contexts from which surveillance originates to understand its sustainability, expansion, and vulnerabilities.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: © 2023 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License (, which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way. The terms on which this article has been published allow the posting of the Accepted Manuscript in a repository by the author(s) or with their consent.
Publisher Keywords: Surveillance, legitimation, NSO, Pegasus, spyware
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
J Political Science > JZ International relations
Q Science > QA Mathematics > QA75 Electronic computers. Computer science
Departments: School of Policy & Global Affairs > Sociology & Criminology
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