Amnesty says Morocco rights advocates targeted by Israeli-developed spyware

Human rights lawyer, activist both receive SMS messages containing malicious links through Pegasus software, whose developer, NSO Group, says it only sells to government agencies

An Israeli woman uses her phone in front of a building in Herzliya that housed the NSO Group intelligence firm, August 28, 2016. (Jack Guez/AFP/File)
An Israeli woman uses her phone in front of a building in Herzliya that housed the NSO Group intelligence firm, August 28, 2016. (Jack Guez/AFP/File)

Two rights activists in Morocco have been targeted by surveillance technology developed by an Israeli firm that enables the sender to seize near-full control of mobile devices, Amnesty International said Thursday.

The rights group said academic and activist Maati Monjib and human rights lawyer Abdessadak El Bouchattaoui had received SMS messages containing malicious links through spyware developed by Israel’s NSO Group.

“Amnesty International’s research has uncovered chilling new evidence that further illustrates how NSO Group’s malicious spyware is enabling state-sponsored repression of human rights defenders,” Danna Ingleton of Amnesty’s technology division said in a statement.

Clicking on the links would have allowed “the sender to obtain near-total control of the phone” by secretly installing Pegasus software, Amnesty said.

The rights group alleged that the same technology was used to target one of its own staff and a Saudi rights activist in June 2018.

Bouchattaoui was in 2018 handed a two-year sentence by a Moroccan criminal court for online comments criticizing the conduct of security forces toward protesters, while Monjib was in 2015 accused of “threatening… internal security,” according to Amnesty.

“NSO Group is known to only sell its spyware to government intelligence and law enforcement agencies, raising serious concerns that Moroccan security agencies are behind the surveillance,” Amnesty said.

NSO says it does not operate the Pegasus system, only licensing it to closely vetted government users “for the sole purpose of preventing or investigating serious crime including terrorism.”

NSO Group is currently facing lawsuits alleging it sold spyware to governments with questionable human rights records. Channel 12 news reported in August that NSO hired controversial private investigation firm Black Cube to investigate those involved with the case. The NSO Group denied the claim.

In September, NSO claimed it was adopting “a new human rights policy” to ensure its software is not misused.

In an emailed response to Amnesty’s claims NSO said it was taking the allegations “seriously and will investigate this matter in keeping with our policy.”

“As per our policy, we investigate reports of alleged misuse of our products. If an investigation identifies actual or potential adverse impacts on human rights, we are proactive and quick to take the appropriate action to address them,” it said. “This may include suspending or immediately terminating a customer’s use of the product, as we have done in the past.”

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