Human Lives Human Rights: Israeli NSO Group’s notorious Pegasus spyware was used to spy the devices of three activists in Bahrain, demonstrating yet again the grave threat which Pegasus poses to critics of repressive governments.
An investigation found that a lawyer, an online journalist, and a mental health counsellor, all of whom have been critical of the Bahraini authorities, were targeted with Pegasus between June and September 2021.
The three cases were first identified by Citizen Lab and independently confirmed by Amnesty International. The Pegasus Project consortium had previously identified Bahrain as a potential client of NSO Group, with hundreds of Bahraini phone numbers included on a leaked list of 50,000 potential Pegasus targets.
In the recent years, Bahraini authorities have carried out crackdowns on dissents, yet tightening their monitoring of digital media, which was the only space left for open discussion after the government outlawed the legal opposition groups.
This chilling breach of the right to privacy comes in a context of harassment against human rights defenders, journalists, opposition leaders, and lawyers.
Rights group call on the Bahraini authorities to immediately cease use of Pegasus spyware’s surveillance technologies, and for NSO and other spyware exporters to cease supplying states with this dangerous software until an international regulatory framework compliant with human rights obligations is put in place.
NSO Group, the Israeli tech company behind the Pegasus spyware, only supplies government clients.
Mohamed al-Tajer is a lawyer who has represented the families of two victims who died due to torture by Bahraini security forces in 2011. Forensic analysis by Citizen Lab showed that Mohamed’s phone was infected with Pegasus software in September 2021.
Mohamed said he was shocked and saddened by the attack.
“After all of the years of my career as a lawyer, there was nothing I could have done to protect myself from a zero-click hack. The state can hack into your device and gain access to all of your personal information, work information, financial information, emails, and personal and family photos.”
The second target, Sharifa Swar, is a mental health counsellor who has published allegations on her Instagram account that the Ministry of Health is complicit in drug trafficking. Forensic analysis of her phone showed Pegasus infection from June 2021. She left Bahrain for the UK in December 2021 and has applied for asylum there.
The third target is an online journalist who requested anonymity but is well known in Bahrain for covering news about the uprising in Bahrain in 2011, and ongoing protests. The investigation found that the journalist’s phone was infected in September 2021.
The continued Pegasus attacks against Bahraini civil society shows that NSO Group cannot be trusted to regulate themselves. We urgently need to rein in the out-of-control spyware industry.
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