Moroccan activists join WhatsApp suit over Israeli-made Pegasus spyware

Plaintiffs, who include three rights activists and the wife of a jailed journalist, claim they were victims of ‘illegal intrusion into their phones’ using software made by NSO

Illustrative. A man holds his phone with NSO GROUP logo on a computer screen in the background, in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative. A man holds his phone with NSO GROUP logo on a computer screen in the background, in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

RABAT, Morocco — Six Moroccan activists targeted by spy software Pegasus said Wednesday that they would join a class action lawsuit in California against the software’s Israeli maker NSO.

Claiming they were “victims of illegal intrusion into their phones by Pegasus software,” they said they are planning to file a joint complaint under a case brought by messaging service WhatsApp, which accuses NSO of allowing mass espionage against activists and journalists.

The Moroccan plaintiffs said in a statement that “criminal intrusion” into their phones had caused “serious harm, due to (our) activities as human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and politicians.”

“These practices must stop immediately,” lawyer Fouad Abdelmoumni told AFP.

“Pegasus has been used to crush human rights activists, political dissidents, journalists, and lawyers. This is unacceptable.”

Those filing the complaint include three rights activists and the wife of jailed dissident journalist Soulaimane Raissouni, who is serving a five-year sentence on sexual abuse charges.

Pegasus gives government users near-complete access to a target’s device, including personal data and messages, photos, location, and even the camera.

The US Supreme Court in January gave a California federal court a green light to hear the case, throwing out an NSO appeal.

WhatsApp accused NSO of targeting some 1,400 devices with spyware to steal information.

Amnesty International in July 2021 accused several governments, including Morocco, of using the technology against political dissidents.

Morocco repeatedly rejected the accusations.

The head of the country’s CNDP data protection agency said Wednesday that people “shouldn’t be duped by a few gesticulations by non-specialists.”

“The ‘accusers’ should justify their statements scientifically, avoiding media assassination attempts,” Omar Seghrouchni tweeted.

Ali Reda Ziane, the son of a jailed lawyer and one of the plaintiffs, said that “even if Morocco denies being a customer of NSO, the Israeli government says it has provided the software to the Moroccan regime.”

“If that’s true, NSO is an integral part of Morocco’s repressive apparatus,” he said.

Spanish journalist and Morocco expert Ignacio Cembrero has also publicly accused Rabat of hacking his phone, after a pro-government Moroccan news outlet published private WhatsApp messages between him and Spanish officials.

Rabat quickly sued him, demanding he withdraw his allegations and pay legal costs.

A Spanish court is set to rule on the case in the coming weeks.

Morocco has taken similar steps in France over claims it used Pegasus software to spy on journalists and politicians, among them President Emmanuel Macron.

NSO said it has safeguards in place to prevent abuses, although the company also said it has no control over how its clients use the product. Critics say the safeguards are insufficient.

The WhatsApp case is among a series of legal battles plaguing NSO. In a separate lawsuit, Apple says it aims to prevent NSO from breaking into products. It claimed Pegasus had affected a small number of iPhone users worldwide, calling NSO’s employees “amoral 21st century mercenaries.”

NSO also has been blacklisted by the US Commerce Department, limiting its access to US technology. US officials said the company’s products were complicit in “transnational repression.”

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