A telephone database leak suggests that human rights lawyers, activists and opponents were chosen as possible targets for a spy attack through their phones. Their numbers appear in the leaked records, indicating that government clients of the Israeli company NSO Group – which developed the Pegasus spy program – would have selected them for surveillance.
Pegasus, the program that hacked Catalan politicians and spied on journalists and activists around the world
The records were obtained by the non-profit organization Forbidden Stories and shared with a consortium of media outlets, including The Guardian.
NSO insists that Pegasus, which can access all the information stored on a device, as well as secretly transform it into an audio or video recorder, is only intended for use against terrorists and dangerous criminals.
The selection of activists, opponents and journalists made by NSO clients seems to indicate otherwise. This finding is likely to be seen by many activists as predictable, given that the software has been sold to some of the most repressive regimes on the planet.
In Azerbaijan, where the dictator Ilham Aliyev has little tolerance for dissent, numerous activists appear in the database. Some of them have seen their personal correspondence and intimate photographs published on the network or on television.
On the list are the phone numbers of six opponents and activists, whose private correspondence was exposed on a tabloid television program in 2019.
Women activists are often attacked with posts with sexual content. In one particularly scandalous case from 2019, a fake Facebook profile leaked intimate photos of activist and journalist Fatima Movlamli, then 18 years old.
It is not clear how the photographs were obtained. Movlamli believes her private information was accessed when police seized her phone during a violent interrogation, in which she was forced to unlock the device. Their number also appears in the records obtained by the media consortium.
“At an age when I still didn’t fully understand that I was a woman, I felt ashamed that I have a female body and that people see it naked,” Movlamli says. He describes the experience as “difficult to bear” and says it led him to have suicidal thoughts. “In this country, women are condemned to live within the limits of what men want and they can lynch a woman just because they saw her body”.
Without a forensic analysis of each device, it is impossible to confirm whether the phones were the subject of a hacking attempt or a Pegasus hack. Movlamli reboots your phone or changes devices regularly, so it was not possible to scan your mobile.
In India, the searches included the phones of a variety of activists. Umar Khalid, an activist and leader of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union in New Delhi, was chosen as a potential target in late 2018, shortly before he was charged with the crime of sedition. He was arrested in September 2020, accused of organizing riots.
The police claimed that the evidence against him included more than a million pages of information taken from his cell phone, without making it clear how it was obtained. Khalid is currently in jail awaiting trial.
The phone numbers of writers, lawyers and artists who support the rights of indigenous communities and lower caste Indians are also on file. Members of this network have been arrested over the past three years and charged with terrorism, including a plot to assassinate Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The network includes an 84-year-old Jesuit priest, Stan Swamy, who died this month after contracting coronavirus in prison.
Records show that many people accused of being Swamy’s accomplices, including Hany Babu, Shoma Sen and Rona Wilson, were also targeted as possible targets in the months before and years after their arrests.
Loujain al-Hathloul, one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s rights activists, was targeted just weeks before being abducted in the United Arab Emirates and forced to return to Saudi Arabia in 2018, where she was imprisoned for three years and was a victim. of alleged torture. Hathoul is believed to have been chosen by the United Arab Emirates, a well-known NSO client and close ally of Saudi Arabia.
Despite being released from jail in February 2021, the Saudi activist is not allowed to speak to the press or circulate freely within Saudi Arabia and is still prohibited from traveling. His mobile phone could not be obtained or analyzed for evidence of a possible hack.
Hathloul had previously revealed that his emails had been hacked. “I assume she was being hacked into the networks of people she works with,” says Hala al-Dosari, a Saudi activist living in the United States, who was communicating with Hathloul prior to her arrest in 2018.
Dosari says that the Saudi authorities obtained private information about payments to Hathloul for allowances of around 50 euros a day and that they possibly did so through his mobile phone.
In Mexico, the registries include a wide selection of human rights activists, lawyers and defenders as potential targets, including Eduardo Ferrer Mac-Gregor Poisot, a judge who was president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Alejandro Solalinde, Catholic priest and defender of the rights of immigrants.
“[El Gobierno mexicano anterior estaba] in search of something that would damage my reputation and serve to blackmail me, “says Solalinde. The priest points out that this is due to his support for the opposition and says that a former agent of the national intelligence service (CISEN) warned him that he was being watched.
John Scott-Railton of Citizen Lab, the institute that published a report On the use of Pegasus against Emirate activist Ahmed Mansoor in 2016, he says: “Attacking opponents should be judged in the same way as attacking heads of state, ambassadors, large corporations and the arms industry.”
Lawyers at Risk
There are also many lawyers in the leaked data. Rodney Dixon, a prominent London lawyer who has worked on numerous high-profile human rights cases, was targeted in 2019. Forensic analysis of his device showed Pegasus-related activity, but without a successful intrusion.
Dixon has had among his clients Matthew Hedges, the British PhD student imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates, and Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. She was also investigated with Pegasus and forensic analysis found evidence of a successful infection.
“No one should be persecuted in this way. For lawyers it is especially worrisome because it violates the fundamental principles of privilege and confidentiality between the lawyer and his client, fundamental in a fair legal procedure,” says Dixon.
Forensic analysis of French human rights lawyer Joseph Breham’s phone shows that during 2019, the device was at risk from the Pegasus program on multiple occasions. The leaked data suggests that he had been chosen by Morocco as a possible target.
“There is no possible justification for a foreign state to eavesdrop on a French lawyer. There is no justification on a legal, ethical or moral level,” says Breham.
The phone numbers of two attorneys who plan to sue NSO in defense of Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi man in exile in Canada, also appear in the leak. Abdulaziz was a close associate and friend of Khashoggi. However, the analysis of the mobile phones of both lawyers found no evidence of any attempt to use the Pegasus software against them.
“They not only hack people for their political activity: if the victims seek justice, they also persecute those who help them achieve this goal,” says a lawyer who asks not to be named.
A representative of the Indian government says: “The allegations in relation to government surveillance on specific subjects have no concrete basis and there is no truth associated with them.” The governments of Morocco, Azerbaijan and Mexico have not responded to The Guardian.
NSO Group has stated that it will suspend customers who misuse Pegasus. In response to the consortium, NSO denies that the leaked data is evidence of Pegasus’ potential targets and says it will “continue to investigate all credible misuse allegations and take appropriate action based on the results of these investigations.”
The use of spyware and hacking in a country like Azerbaijan – where putting activists at risk seems to be a government policy – can have a negative effect not only on those who are persecuted, but on the entire civil society.
Samed Rahimili, a human rights lawyer from Azerbaijan, whose phone number also appears in the leak, says that the dissemination of compromising information makes life difficult for activists in the country, especially women. “Many fear living their personal lives in a normal way. Many also have psychological problems and have sought professional help.”
Translation of Julián Cnochaert