The eight NGOs filed their amicus brief today with the Californian court where WhatsApp has brought a suit against NSO Group. The amicus brief aims to provide the court with information to help it reach a decision and, in particular, to convince it to rule against NSO Group’s request for WhatsApp’s suit to be declared inadmissible.
NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware was so successful in exploiting a WhatsApp vulnerability in April and May 2019 that a missed call sufficed to install Pegasus on a device without the person targeted realizing. Once installed, Pegasus provided access to all sorts of data including emails, messages and GPS coordinates, and even control over the camera and microphone.
Among the more than 100 civil society activists and journalists spied on in this way, the amicus brief cites the case of Aboubakr Jamaï, a Moroccan journalist exiled in France since 2007. The journalist founded and edited Le Journal hebdomadaire and Assahifa al-Ousbouiya, two weeklies that have pioneered coverage of governmental and corporate corruption in Morocco and have published editorials critical of the king and calling for a true constitutional democracy. On two occasions in the past two years, Moroccan state-friendly media outlets have revealed confidential work on which Jamaï was working as consultant, disclosing content that could only have been obtained from his phone in order to defame his professional acquaintances.
At a time when more and more governments are resorting to spyware to monitor and target journalists, the amicus brief emphasizes the threat that spyware such as Pegasus pose to the right to free speech and privacy, especially for journalists and their sources. Far from being justified by security or defence imperatives, the sole aim of hacking into the private communications of activists and journalists is to spy on and silence government opponents. NSO Group continues to provide surveillance technology to its state clients despite knowing it will be used to break international law. It thereby fails in its duty to respect human rights.
There have been several reports in recent years of Pegasus being used to spy on journalists’ phones by other means than exploiting the WhatsApp security flaw. Journalist and human rights activist Omar Radi, the co-creator of the Le Desk news website, has been subjected to all-out judicial harassment in Morocco ever since it was reported that Pegasus was used to spy on him from January 2019 to January 2020. The many other journalists targeted in this way have reportedly included Ben Hubbard of the New York Times and Griselda Triana, the wife of Javier Valdez Cárdenas, a Mexican journalist who was murdered, as well as other Mexican journalists. Citizen Lab reported on 20 December that, in July and August of this year, government operatives used Pegasus to hack into 36 personal phones belonging to Al Jazeera journalists, producers, anchors and executives and the personal phone of Rania Dridi, a journalist at London-based Al Araby TV.
- Access Now
- Amnesty International
- Committee to Protect Journalists
- Internet Freedom Foundation
- Paradigm Initiative
- Privacy International
- Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
- Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales (R3D)