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Female hack-and-leak attack victims speak of spyware

  • Published at 07:38 pm August 17th, 2021
From left, Alaa al-Siddiq, Ghada Oueiss and Alya Alhwaiti Collected

Pegasus is a spyware tool and a weapon used against freedom of the press, freedom of expression, human rights activism and journalism

While having dinner with her husband at home in June, Lebanese journalist Ghada Oueiss got a text asking her to check Twitter. In no time she did so only to find some bikini-clad photos of hers being circulated, with many claiming that those were taken at her boss’ house.

The never-before-experienced situation put her into mounting embarrassment as countless tweets and direct messages questioned her credibility as a journalist. Shockingly, some even termed her a hooker. 

Many messages came from those apparently supporting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, and government officials, reports NBC News.

“I immediately knew that my phone had been hacked,” said Oueiss, adding that those photos were not only on her phone.

“I’m used to being harassed online-- but this was different,” she added narrating herself as being unsafe and traumatized.

Also Read - Is your phone at risk of Pegasus spying?

Alya Alhwaiti, a Saudi Arabian activist now living in London, said she believes she was also targeted in a hack-and-leak attack. 

“I was playing nice. But then when I started speaking my mind about what’s going on in Saudi Arabia, I became the enemy,” she said, referring to her activism over the assassination of Khashogghi in 2018 and more recently her campaign to stop the forced displacement of a tribe.

Another alleged victim of this kind of attack was Alaa al-Siddiq, an Emirati activist, whose phone started acting up in 2020 and she became concerned that she had been hacked like other prominent female activists.

She told friends and colleagues that she was scared her private photos would be leaked, said Cooper and an activist friend who did not wish to be identified over concerns for his safety.

An examination confirmed a spyware infection on her phone, with her number appearing on the list of targets leaked to Amnesty International.

Also Read - Saudi Arabia, UAE deny Pegasus spyware allegations

The three are among the high-profile female journalists and activists allegedly targeted and harassed by authoritarian regimes in the Middle East through hack-and-leak attacks using the Pegasus spyware, created by Israeli surveillance technology company NSO Group.

How the spyware is misused  

The spyware transforms a phone into a surveillance device, activating microphones and cameras and exporting files without a user knowing.

For Oueiss and several other women whose phones were allegedly targeted, a key part of the harassment and intimidation is the use of private photos. 

“I am an independent, liberal woman and that provokes a misogynistic regime,” said Oueiss as she is getting rid of the trauma following an investigation into the leak of 50,000 phone numbers of potential surveillance targets identified by many of NSO Group’s government agency clients. 

The investigation — coordinated by Paris-based nonprofit organization Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International in collaboration with 16 media partners — shows how Pegasus is linked to human rights violations globally. The targets also include heads of state and activists among others. 

Pegasus is a spyware tool and a weapon used against freedom of the press, freedom of expression, human rights activism and journalism, said Rasha Abdul Rahim, director of Amnesty Tech, a division of Amnesty International. 

“Women’s freedom of expression is abused and targeted in a very specific way both online and offline…. The focus is on silencing them, putting the attention on their bodies or what they should be wearing or saying,” she added.

Amnesty International is calling on governments to issue a moratorium on the export, sale and use of surveillance technology like Pegasus until there is a human-rights-compliant regulatory framework in place.

Bangladesh on NSO list 

Canada-based organisation Citizen Lab found Bangladesh in a list of 45 countries with the spyware infections in 2018—something the posts and telecommunications minister denied. 

Soon after the Pegasus scam was revealed last month, Mustafa Jabbar told at least two local media outlets that there was absolutely no question of buying such software. 

“Often these things end up being rumours. We have looked through our networks and have not found any issues," he said.

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