Human rights group Amnesty International has revealed that one of its staff have been targeted with malicious spyware, in what it believes is an attempt by a hostile government to spy on its work.
The organisation said the attack was not successful on this occasion, but showed the threat faced by campaigners and charities in the UK.
In June this year, an Amnesty employee received a WhatsApp message in Arabic. The text contained details about an alleged protest outside the Saudi embassy in Washington DC, followed by a link to a website.
Amnesty’s technology team found that clicking the link would have installed “Pegasus”, a surveillance tool developed by the Israel-based company NSO Group.
Joshua Franco, Amnesty International’s head of technology and human rights, said: “NSO Group is known to only sell its spyware to governments. We therefore believe that this was a deliberate attempt to infiltrate Amnesty by a government hostile to our human rights work.
“The potent state hacking tools manufactured by NSO Group allow for an extraordinarily invasive form of surveillance. A smartphone infected with Pegasus is essentially controlled by the attacker – it can relay phone calls, photos, messages and more, directly to the operator. This chilling attack on Amnesty highlights the grave risk posed to activists around the world by this kind of surveillance technology.”
In a written response to Amnesty, NSO Group said: “NSO Group develops cyber technology to allow government agencies to identify and disrupt terrorist and criminal plots. Our product is intended to be used exclusively for the investigation and prevention of crime and terrorism. Any use of our technology that is counter to that purpose is a violation of our policies, legal contracts, and the values that we stand for as a company.
"If an allegation arises concerning a violation of our contract or inappropriate use of our technology, as Amnesty has offered, we investigate the issue and take appropriate action based on those findings. We welcome any specific information that can assist us in further investigating of the matter.”
‘We refuse to be intimidated by this attack’
Amnesty fears that the attack is part of a broader surveillance campaign.
Franco said: “The message sent to us seems to be part of a much broader surveillance campaign, which we suspect is being used to spy on human rights defenders worldwide and prevent their vital work.
“Defending human rights is not a crime, and we refuse to be intimidated by this attack. Attempts to spy on us will never prevent Amnesty from speaking up for truth, justice and equality. We are working with human rights defenders to help them protect themselves against similar cowardly attacks, and ensure that abusive governments cannot use technology to silence them.”