More Reports of Spyware Attacks on HRDs

Detailed reports of the hacking of Human Rights Defenders’ phones are emerging at an alarmingly steady rate.

Front Line Defenders, Citizen Lab, Amnesty International and Access Now have all outlined what amounts to a pattern of attacks on Human Rights Defenders. 

In October 2021, the Israeli authorities designated six leading Palestinian civil society organizations as “terrorist organizations” under Israel’s Anti-Terrorism Law 2016. The groups named were Addameer; Al-Haq; Defense for Children – Palestine; the Union of Agricultural Work Committees; Bisan Center for Research and Development; and the Union of Palestinian Women Committees.

Mohamed Al Maskati of Front Line Defenders conducted technical investigations of some of the phones used by Human Rights Defenders at the NGOs, and found that six devices were hacked with the same Pegasus spyware, findings confirmed by Citizen Lab and Amnesty International’s Security Lab.

And last week there were further revelations from the region, when another investigation led by Front Line Defenders, working with other NGOs, revealed the hacking of two Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) from Bahrain and Jordan with Pegasus spyware.

Bahraini WHRD Ebtisam Al-Saegh, whose device was hacked, said “personal freedoms are over for me, they no longer exist. I am not safe at home, on the street, or anywhere.” Front Line Defenders researchers found her iPhone had been hacked at least eight times between August and November 2019 with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware.

Others hacked with the spyware included the late Emirati WHRD Alaa Al-Siddiq, who was part of my team supporting my Human Rights Defender mandate.

These can no longer be seen as isolated incidents, but appear to be part of a wider campaign to target Human Rights Defenders, and not just in the Middle East region.

In September 2021, Access Now, working with other NGOs, reported that 37 devices belonging to journalists and others in Latin America were infected between July 2020 and November 2021, some over 40 times.

In August 2021 I joined with other UN independent experts calling for a moratorium on the sale of such spyware. We don’t know the full scale of such surveillance, but we know that many HRDs are living in constant fear of being attacked this way.

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