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Morocco human rights activists targeted by 'malicious' Israeli spyware

NSO is a technology firm based in Herzliya, Israel. [Getty]

Date of publication: 10 October, 2019

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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.
Two Moroccan human rights activists have been targeted by surveillance technology developed by an Israeli firm that seizes near-full control of mobile phone devices, Amnesty International said on Thursday.

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.

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

Read more: Pegasus: The Israeli spyware that helped Saudi Arabia spy on Khashoggi

"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".

The rights group alleged that the same technology was used to target one of its own staff.

Last year Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi dissident based in Canada, implicated the software in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

NSO is a technology firm based in Herzliya, Israel that, according to the company, provides governments with technology that "helps government agencies prevent and investigate terrorism and crime to save thousands of lives around the globe".

The company's most infamous spyware, Pegasus, can be installed on a phone through a single text.

Saudi Arabia is among several authoritarian regimes to which NSO has sold its Pegasus hacking software.

In 2016, Citizen Lab alleged that another prominent NSO customer, the UAE, had used Pegasus-predecessor Trident in an attempt to hack the phone of award-winning Emirati human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor.

Mansoor, currently in prison on a 10-year sentence for spreading "misinformation" on social media, received a text promising him vital information about the torture of detainees in Emirati jails - if he clicked on the attached link.

Instead of clicking on the link, Mansoor forwarded the text to Citizen Lab, who determined that a successful hack using the technology would have given the UAE almost complete access to his phone.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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