actvists, spyware, surveillance Howie Shia

Morocco/Western Sahara: Activist targeted with Pegasus spyware in recent months – new evidence

A prominent human rights activist in Morocco has been targeted with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware in recent months, Amnesty International can reveal.

Analysis by Amnesty International’s Security Lab found that two phones belonging to Sahraoui human rights defender Aminatou Haidar were targeted and infected as recently as November 2021, just months after the Pegasus Project revelations shocked the world.

“The fact that Aminatou Haidar was targeted with Pegasus spyware mere months ago is further proof that companies like NSO Group will continue to facilitate human rights violations unless they are properly regulated,” said Danna Ingleton, Deputy Director of Amnesty Tech.

“This latest revelation shows NSO Group’s human rights policies are meaningless in practice. Amnesty International has repeatedly shown forensic evidence of Pegasus misuse since 2019 in Morocco, as well as in over a dozen countries in the Pegasus Project investigation, yet NSO Group has taken no action to prevent the ongoing human rights violations caused by its tools in Morocco.

“NSO Group must be held accountable for its role in the targeting of Aminatou Haidar, and other fearless activists from Morocco and Western Sahara.”

Aminatou Haidar is a human rights defender from Western Sahara, who has won multiple awards for her peaceful activism, including the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2008, the 2009 Civil Courage Prize, and the Right Livelihood Award in 2019.

After receiving security alerts by email from Apple saying her phones may have been targeted by state-sponsored attackers, Aminatou Haidar contacted the Right Livelihood Foundation, who referred her to Amnesty International’s Security Lab for forensic analysis. The Security Lab then confirmed the targeting and infection with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware.

Amnesty International’s analysis showed that one of Haidar’s phones contained traces of Pegasus targeting dating back to September 2018, and further traces of infection as recently as October and November 2021 on the other. Amnesty International shared forensic records from Haidar’s phone with Citizen Lab researchers at the University of Toronto, who independently confirmed the Pegasus infections from October and November 2021.

This clearly indicates that civil society in Morocco and Western Sahara is still being unlawfully targeted with the Pegasus spyware, despite Amnesty International documenting an extensive history of misuse.

These attacks on human rights defenders are part of an intensifying clampdown of peaceful dissent in Morocco. The continued abuse of NSO Group’s tools in the country indicates Moroccan authorities are failing to respect and protect the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

In addition, NSO Group’s repeated failure to act on the misuse of its tools indicates that it has failed in its human rights responsibilities to not contribute to human rights violations and failed to conduct adequate human rights due diligence in order to mitigate harm.

Amnesty International provided detailed evidence of these abuses to NSO Group on multiple occasions, first in October 2019 with the cases of Maati Monjib and Abdessadak El Bouchattaoui; in June 2020 with the case of journalist Omar Radi; and in July 2021 with the Pegasus Project revelations including the case of Moroccan journalist in exile Hicham Mansouri and Claude Mangin, the partner of Naama Asfari, a Sahraoui activist who is imprisoned in Morocco.

The Moroccan authorities disputed the latest findings, citing a “lack of material evidence”. NSO Group did not respond by time of publication, but has previously refused to confirm or deny whether the Moroccan authorities use its technologies

Since the first revelations of the Pegasus Project, targets from countries including Palestine, El Salvador, Poland and Belgium, have been uncovered, highlighting the wide range of abuses and violations committed using NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware.

“Spyware companies like NSO Group cannot be trusted to regulate themselves, and we are again calling for an immediate moratorium on the sale, transfer, and use of spyware technology until a human rights regulatory framework is in place,” said Danna Ingleton.

Background

Western Sahara is the subject of a territorial dispute between Morocco, which annexed the territory in 1975 and claims sovereignty over it, and the Polisario Front, which calls for an independent state in the territory and has set up a self-proclaimed government-in-exile in the refugee camps in Tindouf, south-west Algeria.

A UN settlement in 1991, which ended fighting between Morocco and the Polisario Front, called for a referendum for people of Western Sahara to choose independence or integration into Morocco. The referendum has not yet been held. In recent years, access to Western Sahara has grown increasingly difficult for external monitors as the human rights situation continues to deteriorate.