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Israeli spyware used by Moroccan government to target journalist, Amnesty claims

NSO Group comes under renewed scrutiny, with allegations that its spyware was used by Moroccan authorities to monitor renowned activist Omar Radi
Demonstrators in Rabat hold a banner of Omar Radi, a Moroccan journalist detained over a tweet criticising a judge, on 28 December 2019 (AFP)

An investigation conducted by Amnesty International has revealed spyware, produced by the Israeli firm NSO Group, was used against prominent Moroccan journalist and human rights defender Omar Radi.

NSO faced criticism and increased scrutiny last year after a series of reports about the ways in which its spyware programme had been illegally used against prominent human rights activists, journalists and dissidents across the globe.

In October 2019, Amnesty published a report outlining how NSO’s hacking software had been used against two other Moroccan human rights defenders, Maati Monjib and Abdessadek El Bouchtaoui.

NSO defended its product, saying that it sold its spy software and technical support exclusively to governments and that those tools were to be used in pursuing suspected terrorists and other criminals. 

Under mounting criticism, the company unveiled a new policy that said it was committed to human rights. The company said it would investigate any substantiated reports that indicated abuse of its technology and that it would terminate contracts with clients it found using its technology illegally.

However, Amnesty’s latest report reveals that the targeting of Radi happened three days after NSO’s new policy was released.

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“These attacks continued after the company became aware of Amnesty International’s first report that provided evidence of the targeted attacks in Morocco. This investigation thus demonstrates NSO Group’s continued failure to conduct adequate human rights due diligence and the inefficacy of its own human rights policy,” the report said.

In response, NSO said it was “deeply troubled” by the allegations and would immediately initiate an investigation.

“Consistent with our human rights policy, NSO Group takes seriously its responsibility to respect human rights, and is strongly committed to avoiding causing, contributing to, or being directly linked to negative human rights impacts,” NSO said in a statement.

However, the company distanced itself from having ties to Moroccan authorities and said that due to the nature of its business it must safeguard the confidentiality of its clients.  

“While we seek to be as transparent as feasible in response to allegations that our products have been misused, because we develop and licence to states and state agencies technologies to assist in combating terrorism, serious crimes, and threats to national security, we are obligated to respect state confidentiality concerns and cannot disclose the identities of customers,” NSO said.

Concealed techniques

In its report last year, Amnesty said the spyware software Pegasus allowed governments to "obtain access to targeted individuals' private data, including the ability to secretly control a target's mobile device" by injecting into its network.

Previous techniques relied on a user clicking on a malicious link which installed the software. This could then access a person’s phone data, including their contacts, text messages, photos, call history and location information.

But network injections are able to infect the device mostly unknown to the victim by allowing an automatic and invisible redirection of their browsers and apps to sites that are under the attackers' control.

'Our findings paint a bleak picture of the human rights risks of NSO's global proliferation'

- report by CitizenLab

It was this injection technique, according to Amnesty’s technical team conducting the investigation, which was used to hack Radi’s phone .

Radi is an independent and award-winning investigative journalist and activist who works for several national and international media outlets.

He lives in Rabat and appears on several radio and TV stations. His work focuses on political power and its relationship with business, human rights issues, corruption and education.

Radi was arrested last year for a tweet condemning a judge who had imposed long prison terms on leaders of protests in Morocco’s Rif region.

In March he stood trial in Casablanca, was convicted and given a four-month suspended sentence and a fine.

Radi had faced other interrogations and detention in solitary confinement due to his vocal objections against the authorities and for his work.

Morocco targets dissident voices 

A report by Amnesty earlier this year said that Moroccan authorities were increasingly cracking down on “peaceful voices” that criticised the king or other government figures.

“The Moroccan authorities have lately intensified their crackdown on peaceful dissent, with arbitrary arrests and prosecutions of individuals, including journalist Omar Radi, rappers and YouTubers, many of whom have been targeted simply for criticising the king or other officials,” said Amnesty’s report.

The forensics lab at Amnesty investigating Radi’s case found that his phone had been subjected to various attacks between September 2019 and January 2020, the same period Radi was being harassed by the authorities.

Amnesty’s findings that Morocco had been using the spyware software against dissident voices is not the first time NSO has come under scrutiny.

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In 2018, a report by CitizenLab, a group at the University of Toronto, showed that human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were targeted with the software.

"Our findings paint a bleak picture of the human rights risks of NSO's global proliferation. At least six countries with significant Pegasus operations have previously been linked to abusive use of spyware to target civil society," the report said.

In October, US whistleblower Edward Snowden said Pegasus had been used by the Saudi authorities to monitor journalist Jamal Khashoggi before his death.

"They are the worst of the worst," Snowden said of the firm.

Another prominent critic of the Saudi government, activist Omar Abdulaziz, said his phone had been hacked during the summer of 2018, when access had been obtained to more than 400 text messages between him and Khashoggi.

In October 2019, messaging app WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against NSO Group, accusing it of unlawfully seeking to track journalists, human rights activists and others.

The lawsuit accused the company of seeking to infect approximately 1,400 "target devices" with Pegasus, which could be used to steal WhatsApp users' information.

NSO denied the claims and has said that its government clients were ultimately responsible for the way its technology is used.