Security Authorities Hacked HR Activist Ibtisam Al-Saegh's Phone with NSO Group's Pegasus Spyware

2022-01-17 - 7:29 م

Bahrain Mirror: A new investigation led by Front Line Defenders reveals the hacking of two women human rights defenders (WHRDs) from Bahrain and Jordan using NSO Group's notorious Pegasus spyware.

The report prepared by Digital Protection Coordinator, Middle East and North Africa, Mohammed Al-Maskati, confirmed that the phone of a Bahraini activist has been hacked at least 8 times in 2019.

The hacking discovery comes on the heels of the Pegasus Project revelations of governments in the MENA region and beyond using the spyware to perpetrate human rights abuses and repress activists and journalists.

The organization said in its report on Monday (January 17, 2021) that "The impact of surveillance on women is particularly egregious and traumatizing given how governments have weaponized personal information extracted through spyware to intimidate, harass, and publicly smear the targets' reputations."

As a result, women targets of surveillance live in a perpetual state of fear, become socially isolated and restricted in their social lives, work, and activism. As expressed by one of the victims, Ibtisam Al-Saegh, "personal freedoms are over for me, they no longer exist. I am not safe at home, on the street, or anywhere."

Who were Hacked and How?

Between November and December 2021, Front Line Defenders worked with female human rights defenders in Bahrain and Jordan through its Digital Protection program, which provides hands-on practical support to human rights defenders around the world.

Front Line Defenders analyzed devices with assistance from The Citizen Lab and Amnesty International's Security Lab for validation of Pegasus targeting.

While providing technical advice, researchers at Front Line Defenders examined the mobile device of Bahraini human rights defender Ibtisam Al-Saegh, and found that her iPhone had been hacked at least eight times between August and November 2019 with NSO Group's Pegasus spyware.

Ibtisam Al-Saegh is an internationally respected human rights defender who works for SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights, an NGO that fights for democracy and human rights in Bahrain.

Bahraini authorities have previously harassed Al-Saegh. On March 20, 2017, authorities detained her for seven hours at Bahrain International Airport upon her return from the 34th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council. They thoroughly searched her, interrogated her for five hours, and confiscated her passport and mobile device. The interrogator accused her of delivering false statements about Bahraini human rights violations while in Geneva.

On May 26, 2017, Bahrain's National Security Agency summoned her to Muharraq police station. Interrogators subjected her to verbal abuse, physically beat and sexually assaulted her, and threatened her with rape if she did not halt her human rights activism. They released her at approximately 11:00 pm and she was immediately taken to a hospital.

Ibtisam and Hala

Front Line Defenders' forensic investigation found that Ibtisam Al-Saegh's phone was compromised multiple times in August 2019 (on the 8th, 9th, 12th, 18th, 28th and 31st), on September, 19, 2019, and on November 22, 2019. Traces of process names linked to Pegasus were identified on her phone.

Amnesty International's Security Lab and The Citizen Lab attribute these process names to NSO Group's Pegasus spyware.

Front Line Defenders also examined the phone of Jordanian human rights lawyer Hala Ahed Deeb, discovering that her device had been infected with Pegasus spyware since March 2021.

Many other women human rights defenders and journalists in the MENA region and beyond have also been recently targeted with Pegasus spyware. This includes Emirati activist Alaa Al-Siddiq, Al Araby journalist Rania Dridi, and Al Jazeera broadcast journalist Ghada Oueiss, to name a few.

Front Line Defenders expressed "concern both publicly and privately with Jordanian and Bahraini authorities over the targeted surveillance of Hala Ahed Deeb and Ibtisam Al-Saegh."

The organizations asked the Jordanian and Bahraini authorities to conduct independent and transparent investigations into the targeted surveillance of women human rights defenders Hala Ahed Deeb and Ebtisam Al-Saegh, respectively.

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