Amnesty Tech Exec: NSO Group’s Malicious Spyware Is Enabling State-Sponsored Repression of Human Rights Defenders

News and Analysis

Amnesty Tech, a global collective of researchers, hackers, and advocates campaigning for human rights, has claimed that Israeli tech company NSO Group committed a government-backed surveillance operation over journalists.

According to Amnesty’s latest investigation into the event, the government of Morocco used NSO’s technology to spy on Moroccan journalist Omar Radi, wherein Radi’s phone had been attacked with NSO’s Pegasus spyware. The software in question is designed to enable concerned parties to remotely spy on smartphones.

Tech That Abuses Human Rights

Radi faced the Moroccan authorities’ scrutiny for his journalistic work and activism, and for his fierce criticism of the government’s human rights record in particular. Radi brought about the issue of corruption and links between corporate and political interests in Morocco. Eventually, Radi was sentenced for four months in prison for a message he tweeted last year criticizing “the unfair trial of a group of activists.”

According to an analysis by Amnesty Tech, Radi’s phone was subject to a series of “network injection” attacks, which allowed the concerned parties to monitor, intercept, and manipulate his Internet traffic. Using Pegasus, the attacker can get access to the target’s phone’s camera, microphone, calls, messages, contacts, among other things.

Although NSO claims it provides “authorized governments with technology that helps them combat terror and crime,” the company’s technology has been repeatedly accused of human rights abuses.

Danna Ingleton, deputy director of Amnesty Tech said that NSO can not be trusted and should be banned from selling its products to governments, who subsequently deploy it for human rights abuses. NSO’s contribution to those abuses came in the form of keeping the government on as an active customer until at least January 2020.

“Even after being presented with chilling evidence of its spyware being used to track activists in Morocco, it appears that NSO chose to keep the Moroccan government on as a customer. If NSO won’t stop its technology from being used in abuses, then it should be banned from selling it to governments who are likely to use it for human rights abuses,” said Ingleton.

Legal Battles Against NSO Group

Back in 2017, Mexican activists, human rights lawyers, and journalists filed a criminal complaint after learning that their smartphones had been attacked with Pegasus spyware. According to a report cited by the parties, the attorney general’s office and the defense ministry were among government organizations that purchased the software.

As previously reported, Facebook and its subsidiary WhatsApp are fighting in court with NSO Group, claiming that the firm used WhatsApp to facilitate spyware distribution.

According to WhatsApp’s research, the messenger’s video call service was exploited to implant malicious code into the user’s mobile devices. Around 1,400 users were targeted by the attack. It turned out that among these users were journalists, human rights activists, and dissidents.

Facebook and WhatsApp claim that NSO Group violated the messenger’s Terms of Service, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and сertain other laws. In return, NSO Group said that they had nothing to do with the attack and the ways their clients use the software.

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