Morocco: human rights activists latest targeted by Israeli spyware - new report

NSO Group's offices in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv © JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Malicious Israeli-made spyware used against academic and lawyer, part of clampdown against Hirak Rif protests

Discovery comes amid growing outcry over invasive NSO Group technology 

‘NSO is not currently able to prevent governments from unlawfully using its surveillance technology as tools to abuse human rights’ - Danna Ingleton

Two prominent human rights defenders in Morocco have been targeted using spyware surveillance technology developed by the Israeli company NSO Group, according to “chilling” new evidence published by Amnesty Tech today.

In a 13-page report, Amnesty shows how Maati Monjib - an academic and human rights activist - and Abdessadak El Bouchattaoui - a human rights lawyer - have been repeatedly targeted since 2017. Both the men received SMS messages containing malicious links that if clicked would secretly install Pegasus software, allowing the sender to obtain near-total control of their phone. The same technology was used to target an Amnesty staff member and a Saudi Arabian human rights activist last year. 
 
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. 

El Bouchattaoui - received an unjust two-year prison sentence in April last year from a Moroccan criminal court for online comments in which he criticised the use of excessive force by the authorities during the country’s Hirak Rif protests. He told Amnesty that he’s been followed and faced repeated death threats, while his family and clients have been harassed. He has now sought asylum in France. He described to Amnesty the psychological impact of feeling constantly monitored: 

“Surveillance is a type of punishment. You can’t behave freely. It is part of their [the authorities’] strategy to make you suspect you’re being watched so you feel like you’re under pressure all the time.”

Meanwhile, in 2015, the Moroccan authorities accused Maati Monjib and four others of “threatening the internal security of the state”, for which he could be jailed for up to five years. This charge was levelled because he’d promoted a mobile phone application for citizen journalism that protected users’ privacy. With the trial ongoing, Monjib is also believed to have been targeted through mobile network attacks which allow the attacker to gain access to a target’s network connection to monitor and re-route web requests to malicious downloads. Such attacks are executed “invisibly” through the network and leave virtually no trace. 

The spyware attacks in Morocco are part of a wider pattern of reprisals against human rights activists by the Moroccan authorities, particularly in the wake of a growing crackdown on protesters in the northern Rif region since 2016. Moroccan human rights defenders are facing intimidation and imprisonment, with the authorities increasingly using repressive laws to crack down on those exercising their rights to freedom of expression in Morocco/Western Sahara.

Danna Ingleton, Deputy Director of Amnesty Tech, said: 

“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. 

“The latest evidence makes it patently clear - NSO is not currently able to prevent governments from unlawfully using its surveillance technology as tools to abuse human rights.

“Subjecting peaceful critics and activists who speak out about Morocco’s human rights records to harassment or intimidation through invasive digital surveillance is an appalling violation of their rights to privacy and freedom of expression.

“Instead of attempting to whitewash human rights violations associated with NSO products, the company must urgently put in place more effective due diligence processes to stop its spyware being abused.”

Legal action against Israeli Ministry of Defense

In May this year, Amnesty supported legal action against the Israeli Ministry of Defense demanding that it revoke NSO Group’s export licence. Amnesty has argued that the Israeli MOD is endangering human rights by allowing NSO to export its products to governments worldwide.  

NSO Group claims its technology is only used for lawful purposes such as counter-terrorism and fighting crime. The company has recently released a  human rights policy, and claims to have human rights diligence mechanisms in place to investigate and prevent abuse by governments. However, a lack of transparency over investigations into misuse of its technology raises serious questions about these claims. 

Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, NSO Group and their primary investor - the UK-based private equity firm Novalpina Capital - have a clear obligation to take urgent steps to ensure that they are not causing or contributing to human rights abuses worldwide.
 

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