Israeli spyware used to target Moroccan journalist, Amnesty claims

Amnesty International says Omar Radi’s phone was hacked using NSO’s software even after the firm professed its commitment to human rights (Fanny Hedenmo)

Stephanie Kirchgaessner

The Guardian  /  June 21, 2020 

Amnesty alleges phone of Omar Radi in Morocco was infected by NSO’s Pegasus software.

As NSO Group faced mounting criticism last year that its hacking software was being used illegally against journalistsdissidents and campaigners around the world, the Israeli spyware company unveiled a new policy that it said showed its commitment to human rights.

Now an investigation has alleged that another journalist, Omar Radi in Morocco, was targeted with NSO’s Pegasus software and put under surveillance just days after the company made that promise.

The investigation by Amnesty International alleges that Radi, a Rabat-based investigative journalist, was targeted three times and spied on after his phone was infected with an NSO tool. The mechanism allegedly used to target Radi, a so-called “network injection attack”, can be deployed without the victim clicking an infected link and is believed to have been used against another Moroccan journalist.

NSO does not publish a list of its government clients, but an earlier investigation by researchers at Citizen Lab identified Morocco as one of 45 countries where the company’s spyware was active.

The Guardian is publishing this report in coordination with Forbidden Stories, a collaborative journalism network that highlights the work of journalists who are threatened, jailed or killed.

Amnesty said the timing of the alleged attacks in Morocco indicated that they occurred after NSO published a new human rights policy in September 2019, and after the company became aware of an earlier report by Amnesty that detailed other allegedly unlawful hacking attacks in Morocco that used the company’s technology.

Under the terms of the human rights policy, NSO promised to investigate any well founded report detailing abuse of technology by its clients, and that the client’s access to its technology would be terminated if necessary if the company found that its technology has been abused.

“NSO has serious questions to answer as to what actions it took when presented with evidence its technology was used to commit human rights violations in Morocco,” said Danna Ingleton, the deputy director of Amnesty Tech.

NSO said in a statement that it was “deeply troubled” by a letter it received from Amnesty that contained the allegations.

“We are reviewing the information therein and will initiate an investigation if warranted,” the company said. “Consistent with our human rights policy, NSO Group take seriously our responsibility to respect human rights. We are strongly committed to avoiding causing, contributing to, or being directly linked to human rights impacts.”

In response to questions about its relationship with Moroccan authorities, NSO said it “seeks to be as transparent as feasible” but was obliged to respect “state confidentiality concerns” and could not disclose the identity of its customers.

A spokesperson added that NSO had taken “investigatory steps” following the publication of an earlier report by Amnesty that alleged other Moroccans had been hacked using Pegasus, but that it could not provide further details because of confidentiality constraints.

Authorities in Morocco did not respond to requests for comment.

The new claims come as NSO fights a lawsuit brought against it by WhatsApp, the messaging app owned by Facebook, which alleges that Pegasus was used to target 1,400 users over a two-week period last year. NSO denies the claims and has said that its government clients were ultimately responsible for the way its technology is used.

At the centre of the latest case is Radi, a journalist who was being targeted as part of a broader campaign by Moroccan authorities to quash dissent, Amnesty said.

Radi is a freelance investigative journalist who writes primarily for Le Desk and is a member of the ICIJ journalism consortium. He covers human rights issues, social movements and land rights, an issue Radi says is rife with corruption.

A report by Amnesty earlier this year said Moroccan authorities were intensifying their crackdown on “peaceful voices” with more arbitrary arrests of individuals who have been targeted for criticising the king or other officials.

In one case earlier this year, Radi said he interviewed villagers for a story but was later prevented from publishing their accounts, after they called him and pleaded with him to delete their interviews because they had been harassed by police after his visit.

As a journalist, Radi said he had lived with the suspicion that he was under regular surveillance since 2011, after it became known that Morocco was acquiring spyware technology from various sources.

Technology experts at Amnesty who investigated Radi’s phone in February found it had been subjected to various attacks between September 2019 and January 2020, when Radi was being “repeatedly harassed” by the Moroccan authorities.

He has in the past faced interrogations and detention in solitary confinement. He was given a suspended four-month prison term in March for a tweet he posted in April 2019 in which he criticised a trial of a group of activists.

Radi said Amnesty had contacted him after his December 2019 arrest and told him it believed he was a possible target for surveillance.

Radi said the discovery that he had been hacked raised immediate questions in his mind. “What could I have said on the phone that was sensitive? Or do I have sources that might be in trouble if the people listening to me find out who I’m talking to?”

Amnesty said forensic data extracted from Radi’s phone indicated he had been subjected network injection attacks in September and February 2019, and January 2020. Amnesty said it believed the attacks were used to infect Radi’s mobile phone with Pegasus in a way that did not require him to click on any infected links.

Network injection attacks allow hackers to redirect a target’s browser and apps to malicious sites which are under the attackers’ control, and then instal spyware to infect the target’s device. Amnesty said Radi’s phone was directed to the same malicious websites Amnesty found in an attack against Moroccan activist and academic Maati Monjib, which Amnesty detailed in an earlier report.

In both cases, the injections occurred while the targets – Radi and Monjib – were using an LTE/4G connection. One way spyware companies can execute such infections involve the use of what Amnesty called a “rogue” cell tower: a portable device that imitates legitimate cellular towers and, when placed in close physical proximity to a target, enables attackers to manipulate intercepted mobile traffic.

Last year, The Guardian reported that two other Moroccans were believed to have been targeted using NSO’s technology, including Aboubakr Jamaï, a campaigner and former journalist who lives in France.

Jamaï, who was asked to respond to the latest news, said that the Moroccan targets were clearly perceived as threats to the Moroccan regime.

“In a sense I’m almost happy that they’ve done it and that it’s been rendered public because it kind of lifts the veil on the true nature of the regime, which has been getting away with a lot of things because … it’s not as violently repressive as the Syrian regime or even the Egyptian regime. But it is still an authoritarian regime,” he said.

Stephanie Kirchgaessner is The Guardian’s US investigations correspondent, based in Washington DC