RABAT, Morocco (AP) – Amnesty International said on Monday that sophisticated phone surveillance software appears to have been used to spy on a journalist activist in Morocco in an ongoing crackdown on dissent in the North African kingdom.
The global rights watchdog said the intrusion continued despite a promise by the Israeli company behind the malware to adhere to a set of human rights principles.
In a report, Amnesty said that forensic analysis it conducted on Omar Radi’s mobile phone indicates that its communications were monitored as of January 2019 using technology developed by Israeli hacker-for-rent company NSO Group.
Radi rose to prominence last year after being arrested for a tweet defending protesters against the government.
Radi was subsequently tried in March this year, accused of insulting a judge with his tweet who slammed the prison sentences pronounced on the protest leaders. Radi received a four-month suspended sentence and a fine of $ 50.
Radi was also part of demonstrations of the Arab Spring in Morocco in 2011 protesting corruption, abuse of power and restrictions on freedom of expression, and has continued to defend human rights ever since.
Amnesty said the surveillance methods she said were used to spy on Radi’s phone “require physical proximity to the targets or use mobile operators in the country that only a government could authorize.”
“Because of this, and the continued focus on Moroccan human rights defenders, we believe that the Moroccan authorities are responsible,” said Amnesty.
A government spokesperson and the government center that monitors IT attacks did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
NSO has come under fire for selling its surveillance software to repressive governments using it against dissidents. It does not reveal customers, but it is believed to include countries from the Middle East and Latin America. A Saudi dissident has accused NSO of being involved in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The company says it is selling its technology to Israel-approved governments to help them stop militants and criminals.
The company is also engaged in legal battle for the spyware. In Israel, Amnesty asks a court to revoke the company’s export license, which prevents it from selling its controversial product abroad, particularly to regimes that could use it for malicious purposes. Last year, Facebook took the company to United States federal court for allegedly targeting about 1,400 users of its encrypted messaging service WhatsApp with highly sophisticated spyware.
Amid the backlash, the company said in September it would institute a series of surveillance measures to ensure compliance and henceforth evaluate “past human rights performance” of potential customers.
But Amnesty said Radi’s phone became a target just three days after NSO committed to human rights and continued this year.
NSO Group’s flagship malware called Pegasus allows remote spies to effectively take control of phones. Notably, the spyware was involved in the horrific murder of Khashoggi in 2018.
The Amnesty report states that the NSO group “uses tools to support the Moroccan government’s efforts to prosecute people for free speech and to fight discord.”
NSO responded with a statement saying, “We take every claim of abuse seriously.”
“We will immediately review the information provided and initiate an investigation if necessary,” it said.
AP journalists John Leicester in Le Pecq, France, and Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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