In MENA, women activists are the biggest victims of Pegasus spyware
Hala al-Ahed was alarmed when she got a message from Apple. The telecom giant was notifying her that she may have been hacked using the Pegasus software, the Israeli spyware that gives its user complete access to a phone and its contents.
Worried, al-Ahed sent in her phone to be tested by Frontline Defenders, an NGO that specialises in protecting activists. Digital forensics confirmed her fears: An unspecified government had paid upwards of a million dollars to spy on her using Pegasus.
Al-Ahed's first concern, as human rights lawyer in the Jordanian National Forum for Defending Freedom, was her clients and associates.
Al-Ahed is on the frontlines of the fight for human rights in Jordan and works closely with other activists who have come under pressure from the authorities. In a country where sharing certain content over WhatsApp can land you in prison, the privacy of activists is paramount.
"Al-Ahed and other female human rights activists and journalists in the region face unique pressures that their male colleagues do not"
“It’s very disturbing. Everyone who works in the public sphere expects there will be a price for their activities. However, this is an incredibly high price. When someone compromises your privacy, they compromise the privacy of everyone you deal with,” al-Ahed told The New Arab.
Whoever had commissioned the hack on al-Ahed’s phone now had access to every conversation, contact, file and picture on her device – all without her knowledge.
However, the risk from the hack extended far beyond her professional career. Al-Ahed and other female human rights activists and journalists in the region face unique pressures that their male colleagues do not.
“Everyone says they have nothing to hide, but there are a lot of things that I share with my friends that I don’t want to share with others. Especially because we are in a conservative society and the reputation of women is very important,” she said.
An intrusion into her device meant that anything from her private life could be laid out for the world at the whim of whichever government targeted her.
As a female human rights and societal activist, using this information to start a rumour – however untrue – could be hugely detrimental to her professional and personal life.
Women on the frontlines
Despite barriers to female participation in public life in many countries in the Middle East, female activists are leading the fights for freedom and against human rights abuses.
Whether becoming an icon for their revolutionary poetry during Sudan’s protests, or delivering a literal blow to Lebanon’s security forces during the October 2019 demonstrations, women have frequently become revolutionary symbols in the region.
"For women human rights activists however, this means the privacy of the entire network they operate in could potentially have been compromised"
This has meant that they have often borne the highest price for their activism.
With the advent of surveillance and spyware like Pegasus where victims can be hacked without even clicking on a link, female human rights defenders face dangers even in their private lives.
“For some women, it’s already a battle in their families and communities to take up these roles in public life. They are already fighting against patriarchal norms so that they can do their work,” Lama Fakih, the director of Human Rights Watch in the Middle East and North Africa who was also targeted by Pegasus, told The New Arab.
“This data that is collected is used to undermine their reputations, make them appear not credible, and make it that much harder for them to continue doing their work,” Fakih said.
“When photos of [a woman] or details of her personal life are revealed, this can undermine her in ways that men are just not as susceptible to” she added.
#NSO says it only sells #Pegasus to governments to stop criminals and terrorists, but the attacks against me and countless other activists and journalists are proof that that isn’t true. https://t.co/slXeQe1SJ5— Lama Fakih (@lamamfakih) January 26, 2022
Rumours or leaked photos, oftentimes manipulated through software like Photoshop, can do irreparable harm to any woman. This is true in most countries, but especially more conservative ones like Jordan or Syria where women frequently bear the burden of upholding the family’s “honor.”
In July, a woman was murdered in Syria by her relative after a photo of her without a headscarf started circulating Telegram, a messaging app similar to WhatsApp.
For women human rights activists however, this means the privacy of the entire network they operate in could potentially have been compromised. Women advocates oftentimes handle issues their male colleagues do not, such as assisting survivors of gender-based or sexual violence.
Handling these issues requires the utmost sensitivity to ensure the privacy of survivors. Survivors also need to know that they can count on human rights advocates and the organizations they represent to protect them when they come forward.
If survivors of human rights abuses think that the information they share with human rights organisations could be monitored, this could make them reluctant to seek help or speak up.
“My first thought when I found out I was targeted was ‘How does this impact the people I am advocating for in my network?’ To think that this activism has been used to undermine their rights is really enraging,” Fakih said.
“[Survivors of] sexual violence, domestic violence and … migrant domestic workers – These individuals trust us to keep their identities safe but they want to speak out so these abuses against them stop. This is very chilling for victims and us as advocates,” she added.
Besides negatively affecting victims of human rights abuses, spyware can also produce a chilling effect among other female activists.
“This is kind of a double whammy for us, because we are working in politics in a conservative society and as for our personal privacy which should be protected,” Dima Tahboub, a former MP in Jordan and the spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated-Islamic Front, said to The New Arab about her experience being targeted by Pegasus.
“This is discouraging for women who want to work in politics … having your personal privacy threatened is a big thing,” Tahboub added.
"Despite a global outcry and US sanctions placed on the NSO Group – the Israeli company which produced the spyware – little has been done to achieve accountability or place limits on the burgeoning surveillance industry"
A surveillance industry, with no oversight
In August, a consortium of journalists revealed that Pegasus was potentially used to target 50,000 people around the world by governments such as India, Saudi Arabia and China.
Despite a global outcry and US sanctions placed on the NSO Group – the Israeli company which produced the spyware – little has been done to achieve accountability or place limits on the burgeoning surveillance industry.
Meanwhile, many victims of the Pegasus hacks still have no idea who or why their personal devices were hacked.
In Jordan, when al-Ahed demanded an investigation into how her and other Jordanians were targeted by Pegasus, she was met by silence. The Jordanian government has yet to take any formal action to investigate Pegasus used against its own citizens.
Jordan was reportedly in talks to purchase Pegasus in April 2021, but it is unknown if it ever actually bought the software.
Al-Ahed said that she is planning on filing a suit against the NSO group in an international court if nothing is done to achieve accountability in Jordan.
The NSO Group denies that it ever targeted human rights activists such as Lama Fakih. Instead it claimed that “any call to suspend these life-saving technologies … until a [regulatory] structure exists is naïve and would only benefit the terrorists, paedophiles and hardened criminals who will evade surveillance and apprehension.”
Activists say that contrary to the NSO Group’s claims, the surveillance technology is often used against activists by repressive regimes. To combat this, there have been increasing demands for regulating the surveillance industry.
“We are calling for trade and surveillance technology to be suspended until a rights-respecting framework can be established. Like other industries, such as the arms industry, it requires regulation,” Fakih said.
“People are starting to appreciate how nefarious these technologies are. These technologies are incredibly powerful and governments can without any oversight can target anybody’s phone,” she added.
William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean.
Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou