Access Now and Front Line Defenders reveal the hacking of two women human rights defenders (WHRDs) from Bahrain and Jordan using NSO Group’s notorious Pegasus spyware. The hacking discovery comes on the heels of the Pegasus Project revelations of governments in the MENA region and beyond using the spyware to perpetrate human rights abuses and repress activists and journalists.
The impact of surveillance on women is particularly egregious and traumatizing given how governments have weaponized personal information extracted through spyware to intimidate, harass, and publicly smear the targets’ reputations. As a result, women targets of surveillance live in a perpetual state of fear, become socially isolated and restricted in their social lives, work, and activism. As expressed by one of the victims, Ebtisam Al-Saegh, “personal freedoms are over for me, they no longer exist. I am not safe at home, on the street, or anywhere.”
The investigation: who was hacked and how
Between November and December 2021, Front Line Defenders worked with WHRDs in Bahrain and Jordan through its Digital Protection program, which provides hands-on practical support to human rights defenders around the world. Front Line Defenders analyzed devices with assistance from The Citizen Lab and Amnesty International’s Security Lab for validation of Pegasus targeting.
Many other women human rights defenders and journalists in the MENA region and beyond have also been recently targeted with Pegasus spyware. This includes Emirati activist Alaa Al-Siddiq, Al Araby journalist Rania Dridi, and Al Jazeera broadcast journalist Ghada Oueiss, to name a few.
How Pegasus attacks work
Developed by Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group, Pegasus spyware exploits technical vulnerabilities in a victim’s device to covertly gain access to the device and extract data, including text messages, emails, media, microphone, camera, passwords, voice calls on messaging apps, location data, call logs, and contacts. The spyware can also potentially allow an attacker to activate the phone camera and microphone, to spy on an individual’s calls and activities. As such, Pegasus not only enables the surveillance of the target, but also the target’s communications and interactions with other people.
Surveillance as a form of violence against women: the targets speak out
The use of targeted digital surveillance tools such as NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware violates the right to privacy, and the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Such abuses are abundantly evident in the aftermath of the Pegasus Project, which, as we note above, has been documenting the severe harms surveillance inflicts on human rights defenders, journalists, and activists.
Surveillance technologies are often used to target human rights defenders to dissuade them from continuing their human rights work, to infiltrate their networks, and to gather information for use against other targets, for example. The use of surveillance technology against HRDs and journalists contributes to a chilling effect in which defenders are aware they may be targeted through these technologies and therefore may become fearful to continue their work. Online spaces have become an increasingly hostile environment for WHRDs, and in some cases, online attacks have led to grave rights violations offline.
The impact of targeted surveillance on women can be particularly grievous, given that political, societal, and gender power asymmetries often grant authorities opportunities to weaponize the information they extract through defamation, blackmail, and doxxing. This can include the publishing of private and intimate photos and conversations online.
The United Nations defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” This includes “physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the State, wherever it occurs.”
The spyware attacks have had a devastating impact on Ebtisam Al-Saegh and Hala Deeb. Since they discovered their phones were infected, they have each been living in a state of daily anxiety and fear. They are especially afraid of the possibility of exposing other women activists and victims they work with, and concerned that their families and friends are now at risk.
The chilling effect of surveillance has also led to the social isolation of the targets. The malicious capabilities that Pegasus spyware provides to perpetrators not only strip women of privacy, the surveillance also destroys the inviolability of their homes and immediate surroundings. Friends and relatives distance themselves in fear of also being harmed or surveilled.
Furthermore, surveillance has restricted the targets’ freedom of movement out of their fear of physical harassment and threat. As Indian digital rights lawyer Vrinda Bhandari previously noted: “When their phone is hacked, women experience this not just as a privacy violation, but also as a violation of their bodily integrity — akin to bodily violence.” Before Alaa Al-Siddiq’s tragic death, for instance, one of her friends testified to how she changed her habits in fear of surveillance, including “changing routes she traveled on the tube. She tried to be mindful to not stand too close to the edge when she was traveling by train, for fear she could be pushed [onto] the tracks.”
In Al-Saegh’s case, the hacking of her device deprived her of being fully free at home, forcing her to wear her veil even when she is home alone — afraid of being watched.
For women targets, digital surveillance is a ticking bomb. They live in fear of how their personal information, including private photos, videos, and conversations, could be used against them at any given point, opening the door for harassment and abuse. This is especially worrying in a region where governments have routinely used doxxing of women and LGBTQ+ activists in order to smear and intimidate them into silence.
To Jordanian and Bahraini authorities:
- Conduct independent and transparent investigations into the targeted surveillance of women human rights defenders Hala Ahed Deeb and Ebtisam Al-Saegh, respectively.
To all States:
- Place an immediate moratorium on the use, sale, and transfer of surveillance technologies produced by private firms until adequate human rights safeguards and regulation is in place.
- Hold surveillance companies accountable for their human rights impacts by developing a legal framework which requires surveillance companies to conduct human rights due diligence to identify, prevent, mitigate, and remedy any human rights impacts of the use of their products and services. This should be conducted before the sale or transfer of any surveillance technology and throughout any partnerships with other companies and/or governments and include liability for harms which are not properly prevented.
- Establish an independent mechanism with oversight of companies selling spyware to monitor and investigate their use and ensure that use is consistent with human rights.
- Adopt legislation that mandates transparency on the sale and use of surveillance technologies, including on human rights due diligence processes and outcomes.
- Ensure that any legislation that is adopted to regulate surveillance technology companies is developed in consultation with human rights defenders who have been impacted by the misuse of surveillance technologies.
To the European Union and its Member States:
- Move to take serious and effective measures against surveillance technology providers like NSO Group, including the designation of such entities under the E.U.’s global human rights sanctions regime.
- Raise concerns both publicly and privately with Jordanian and Bahraini authorities over the targeted surveillance of Hala Ahed Deeb and Ebtisam Al-Saegh and redouble support for women human rights defenders in the region.
- Alert potentially affected communities, organizations, and individuals to the risks of private surveillance technology, provide funding and technical support for civil society actors, journalists, and technologists working to identify and mitigate risks related to spyware, and issue advisories to those traveling to and living in countries shown to use spyware to target civil society.
What you can do
These two women human rights defenders have stepped forward to tell their stories — sharing how the use of Pegasus spyware has harmed their lives, their work, and social relations. They do this with the understanding that while being public might carry some additional risk, the awareness that can be raised for others is far more important.
Companies such as NSO Group that profit from such human rights abuses must be held accountable. Read and share their personal testimonies below to ensure their voices are heard.