A number of human rights defenders and activists in Morocco have been found to have been targeted by surveillance technology and spyware developed by an Israeli company, according to research by Amnesty International.
The activists, including academic Maati Monjib and human rights lawyer Abdessadak El Bouchattaoui, have been targeted repeatedly since 2017 by the spyware created by the NSO Group, a company famed among authoritarian states for its effective surveillance on citizens and activists. Both men were able to be targeted by receiving SMS messages containing malicious links that would secretly install Pegasus software enabling the sender to gain almost total control of their phones.
Diana Ingleton, deputy director of Amnesty Tech, stated that her organisation “has uncovered chilling new evidence that further illustrates how NSO Group’s malicious spyware is enabling state-sponsored repression of human rights defenders.” This, Ingleton insists, perpetuates the persecution and repression of those who attempt to speak freely. “Subjecting peaceful critics and activists who speak out about Morocco’s human rights records to harassment or intimidation through invasive digital surveillance is an appalling violation of their rights to privacy and freedom of expression.”
In recent years, Moroccan authorities have been carrying out a campaign of reprisals against human rights defenders within the kingdom, particularly following the crackdown on protesters in the northern Rif region since 2016. The government’s use of the Israeli spyware, therefore, makes the crackdown on criticism and activists significantly more effective through the tracking of their activities and connections.
El Bouchattaoui, who received a two-year prison sentence in April last year after he published critical comments against the authorities’ excessive use of force against protesters, told Amnesty International that he has faced death threats, been followed and that his family and associates have been harassed. He spoke at the time about the effects of his ordeal, saying:
Surveillance is a type of punishment. You can’t behave freely. It is part of their strategy to make you suspect you’re being watched so you feel like you’re under pressure all the time.
Activist Maati Monjib, as well as four others, were accused by the Moroccan authorities in 2015 of “threatening the internal security of the state” through the use of “propaganda” which could harm and threaten “the loyalty that citizens owe to the State and institutions of the Moroccan people,” according to official court papers. If found guilty, Monjib could be imprisoned for up to five years simply for promoting a mobile app which protects users’ privacy for the purpose of citizen journalism.
The NSO Group is known to exclusively sell its spyware to government intelligence agencies around the world, and that has particularly been the case with its sales to agencies throughout the Middle East. Last year it was revealed that Saudi Arabia has been a primary customer of the spyware and used it to spy and gather information on citizens, critics and dissidents, the widest-known case of which was the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 in which the spyware was used.
Although NSO Group in January claimed its software was not used to spy on Khashoggi directly, the sale of its products to Saudi Arabia has been vehemently criticised by human rights groups such as Amnesty International, as well as US whistle-blower Edward Snowden who argued that, if NSO Group had refused to sell its technology to Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi would still be alive.