Women activists in the MENA region are the biggest victims of Pegasus spyware

In depth: Women activists in the MENA region are among the most affected by the use of Pegasus spyware, which threatens their personal and professional reputation. Now they demand accountability.

Hala al-Ahed was alarmed when she received a message from Apple. The telecommunications giant informed her that she may have been hacked using Pegasus software, the Israeli spyware that gives its user full access to a phone and its contents.

Worried, al-Ahed sent her phone to be tested by Frontline Defenders, an NGO specializing in the protection of activists. Digital forensics confirmed his fears: an unspecified government had paid over $1 million to spy on him using Pegasus.

Al-Ahed’s primary concern, as a human rights lawyer with the Jordanian National Forum for the Defense of Freedom, was her clients and associates.

Al-Ahed is on the front line of the fight for human rights in Jordan and works closely with other activists who come under pressure from the authorities. In a country where sharing certain content on WhatsApp can land you in jail, the privacy of activists is paramount.

“Al-Ahed and other female human rights activists and journalists in the region face unique pressures that their male colleagues do not face”

“It’s very disturbing. Everyone who works in the public sphere expects there to be a price for their activities. However, this is an incredibly high price. When someone compromises your privacy, they compromise the privacy of everyone you deal with,” al-Ahed said. The new Arabic.

Whoever ordered the hacking of al-Ahed’s phone now had access to all conversations, contacts, files and photos on his device, all without his knowledge.

However, the risk of hacking extended far beyond his professional career. Al-Ahed and other female human rights activists and journalists in the region face unique pressures that their male colleagues do not face.

“Everyone says he has nothing to hide, but there are a lot of things I share with my friends that I don’t want to share with others. Especially because we are in a conservative society and the reputation of women is very important,” she said.

An intrusion into her device meant that anything of her private life could be exposed to the world at the whim of the government targeting her.

As a human rights and society activist, using this information to start a rumor – no matter how untrue – could be extremely damaging to her professional and personal life.

Women on the front line

Despite the obstacles to women’s participation in public life in many countries in the Middle East, women activists lead the fight for freedom and against human rights violations.

Whether they became an icon for their revolutionary poetry during protests in Sudan or dealt a literal blow to Lebanese security forces during the October 2019 protests, women have often become revolutionary symbols in the region.

“However, for human rights activists, it means that the confidentiality of the entire network in which they operate could potentially have been compromised”

This means that they have often borne the highest price for their activism.

With the advent of surveillance and spyware like Pegasus, where victims can be hacked without even clicking a link, women human rights defenders face dangers even in their private lives.

“For some women, it is already a battle within their family and community to take on these roles in public life. They are already struggling against patriarchal norms to be able to do their job,” said Lama Fakih, director of Human Rights Watch in the Middle East and North Africa, also targeted by Pegasus. The new Arabic.

“This collected data is used to undermine their reputation, make them appear uncredible and make it all the more difficult for them to continue doing their jobs,” Fakih said.

“When pictures of [a woman] or for details of her personal life to come to light, it can undermine her in ways that men just aren’t as sensitive to,” she added.

Rumors or leaked photos, often manipulated by software like Photoshop, can cause irreparable harm to any woman. This is true in most countries, but especially in more conservative ones like Jordan or Syria where women often bear the burden of upholding the “honor” of the family.

In July, a woman was murdered in Syria by her relative after a photo of her without a headscarf began circulating on Telegram, a messaging app similar to WhatsApp.

However, for human rights activists, this means that the confidentiality of the entire network in which they operate may have been compromised. Women’s rights defenders often deal with issues that their male colleagues do not, such as helping victims of gender-based or sexual violence.

Managing these issues requires the utmost sensitivity to ensure survivor confidentiality. Survivors also need to know that they can count on human rights defenders and the organizations they represent to protect them when they come forward.

If survivors of human rights violations believe that the information they share with human rights organizations could be monitored, this may make them reluctant to seek help or speak up.

“My first thought when I found out I was being targeted was ‘What impact does this have on the people I support in my network?’ To think that this activism has been used to undermine their rights is really infuriating,” Fakih said.

“[Survivors of] sexual violence, domestic violence and… migrant domestic workers – These people trust us to protect their identity, but they want to speak out so that this abuse against them stops. It is very frightening for the victims and for us as defenders,” she added.

In addition to negatively affecting victims of human rights abuses, spyware can also have a chilling effect on other activists.

“It’s sort of a double whammy for us, because we work in politics in a conservative society and as to our privacy which needs to be protected,” said Dima Tahboub, a former Jordanian MP and spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood. affiliates. Islamic Front, said The new Arabic about her experience of being targeted by Pegasus.

“It’s discouraging for women who want to work in politics…to have their privacy threatened is a big thing,” Tahboub added.

“Despite a global outcry and US sanctions imposed on NSO Group – the Israeli company that produced the spyware – little has been done to bring accountability or impose limits on the burgeoning surveillance industry”

A surveillance industry, without control

In August, a consortium of journalists revealed that Pegasus was potentially being used to target 50,000 people worldwide by governments including India, Saudi Arabia and China.

Despite a global outcry and US sanctions imposed on the NSO Group – the Israeli company that produced the spyware – little has been done to bring accountability or impose limits on the burgeoning surveillance industry.

Meanwhile, many victims of Pegasus hacks still have no idea who or why their personal devices were hacked.

In Jordan, when al-Ahed demanded an investigation into how she and other Jordanians had been targeted by Pegasus, she was met with silence. The Jordanian government has yet to take any formal action to investigate Pegasus being used against its own citizens.

Jordan was reportedly in talks to buy Pegasus in April 2021, but it’s unclear if he’s purchased the software yet.

Al-Ahed said she plans to file a lawsuit against the NSO Group in an international court if nothing is done to obtain accounts in Jordan.

The NSO group denies ever targeting human rights activists such as Lama Fakih. Instead, he asserted that “any call to suspend these vital technologies…until a [regulatory] existing structure is naïve and would only benefit terrorists, pedophiles and hardened criminals who will evade surveillance and arrest.

Activists say that contrary to claims by the NSO Group, surveillance technology is often used against activists by repressive regimes. To combat this, there have been increasing demands for regulation from the surveillance industry.

“We ask that commerce and surveillance technology be suspended until a rights-respecting framework can be established. Like other industries, like the arms industry, it needs regulation,” Fakih said.

“People are starting to understand how harmful these technologies are. These technologies are incredibly powerful and governments can, without any oversight, target anyone’s phone,” she added.

William Christou is the New Arab’s Levantine correspondent, covering Levant and Mediterranean politics.

Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou