The following statement condemning the use of Pegasus spyware against six Palestinian human rights defenders was issued today by seven human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch:
We, the undersigned human rights organizations, condemn the hacking of six Palestinian human rights defenders with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, as uncovered by the Front Line Defenders (FLD) and confirmed by the Citizen Lab and Amnesty International. This attack is part of a broader assault on Palestinian civil society, and it raises serious questions about whether Israeli authorities were involved in the targeting. Three of the targeted human rights defenders come from prominent Palestinian civil society groups that Israeli authorities recently designated as “terrorist organizations.”
In October 2021, Front Line Defenders began collecting data on suspected hacking of the devices belonging to several Palestinians working for civil society organizations based in the West Bank. Their analysis indicated that six of the analyzed devices were hacked using Pegasus. Both the Citizen Lab and Amnesty International’s Security Lab independently confirmed FLD’s analysis.
Pegasus, developed by Israel-based company NSO Group, is surreptitiously introduced on people’s mobile phones. It turns an infected device into a portable surveillance tool by gaining access to the phone’s camera, microphone, and text messages, enabling surveillance of the person targeted and their contacts.
NSO Group responded to reports of Pegasus being used to target Palestinian human rights defenders by saying that “[d]ue to contractual and national security considerations, [it] cannot confirm or deny the identity of our government customers.” It also reiterated its past statements that “NSO Group does not operate the products itself; the company license approved government agencies to do so, and we are not privy to the details of individuals monitored,” and that “NSO Group develops critical technologies for the use of law enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world to defend the public from serious crime and terror. These technologies are vital for governments in the face of platforms used by criminals and terrorists to communicate uninterrupted.”
NSO Group did not respond to Human Rights Watch’s request for comment at the time of this publication.
Terrorist Designations of Palestinian Organizations
Three of the six people whose devices were hacked work at the Palestinian civil society groups that the Israeli government designated on October 19 as “terrorist organizations” under its Counter-Terrorism Law of 2016, but they were targeted before Israel’s designation. The people hacked include Ghassan Halaika, a field researcher and human rights defender working for Al-Haq; Ubai Al-Aboudi, the executive director of Bisan Center for Research and Development; Salah Hammouri, a lawyer and field researcher at Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, based in Jerusalem, in addition to three other human rights defenders who wish to remain anonymous. Two of the people targeted are dual nationals – one French, the other American.
Israel’s decision to designate the organizations as “terrorist” has drawn widespread international condemnation and criticism including from Sweden’s Minister of International Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Affairs, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Ireland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Defense, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the EU Special Representative for Human Rights, US Congressional representatives, United Nations experts such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Association, and international groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said that the designations were “arbitrary” and “contravene the right to freedom of association of the individuals affected and more broadly have a chilling effect on human rights defenders and civic space.”
A group of 17 UN experts, in a separate statement, concluded that the designations were a “frontal attack on the Palestinian human rights movement, and on human rights everywhere.” As stated, the designations would “effectively ban the work of these human rights defenders, and allow the Israeli military to arrest their staff, shutter their offices, confiscate their assets and prohibit their activities and human rights work.”
Surveillance of Palestinian Human Rights Defenders Violates Their Human Rights
Surveillance of Palestinian human rights defenders violates their right to privacy, undermines their freedom of expression and association, and threatens their personal security and lives. It not only affects those directly targeted, but also has a chilling effect on advocates or journalists who may self-censor out of fear of potential surveillance.
Information obtained through arbitrary surveillance can be used to prosecute, monitor, harass, or detain human rights defenders, dissidents, and others who challenge authorities or dare to stand up to those in power. Both Al-Aboudi and Hammouri have been arbitrarily detained by the Israeli authorities and placed in administrative detention, a practice routinely used by Israeli authorities to imprison Palestinians without trial or charge based on undisclosed secret evidence. On October 18, a day before the designations, the Israeli interior minister revoked Hammouri’s residency status for “breach of allegiance to the State of Israel,” a move to effectively exile him from his home city, despite the international humanitarian law prohibition on an occupying power compelling people under occupation to pledge loyalty or allegiance to it.
The targeted organizations have also been subject to previous harassment by the Israeli authorities, including intimidation, arbitrary detention of staff, travel bans, office raids, and confiscation of equipment. The Israeli government has also applied some of these tactics to Israeli and international human rights advocates.
This targeting of human rights defenders with Pegasus provides further evidence of a pattern of human rights abuses facilitated by NSO Group through spyware sales to governments that use the technology to prosecute civil society and social movements in many countries around the world. Furthermore, these abuses underscore how NSO Group’s Human Rights Policy fails to prevent and mitigate human rights abuse in a meaningful way.
Call for Action
From the first revelations by the Citizen Lab in 2016 of NSO’s technology being used against the UAE dissident Ahmed Mansoor, to the recent Pegasus Project revelations by Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories, civil society has been calling for accountability for NSO Group and governments that use its technology and services.
Today, we, the undersigned organizations:
Reiterate our calls on states to implement an immediate moratorium on the sale, transfer, and use of surveillance technology until adequate human rights safeguards are in place, and
Press UN experts to take urgent action to denounce human rights violations by states facilitated by the use of the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware and to provide immediate, robust support for impartial and transparent inquiries into the abuses.
The November 3 decision by the US Department of Commerce to add NSO Group to its trade restriction list (Entity List), for “acting contrary to the foreign policy and national security interests of the United States” is a positive step. The Commerce Department cited the use of NSO Group tools by foreign government clients to “maliciously target government officials, journalists, business people, activists, academics, and embassy workers” and to enable “foreign governments to conduct transnational repression” by “targeting dissidents, journalists and activists outside of their sovereign borders to silence dissent.”
NSO Group said it was “dismayed by the decision” and will press to reverse it.
We encourage other states to impose similar restrictions to prohibit the export, sale, and in-country transfer of NSO Group technologies, as well as the provision of services that support NSO Group’s products.
Access Now, Human Rights Watch,Masaar – Technology and Law Community, Red Line for Gulf,7amleh- The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media,SMEX, INSM Network for digital rights- Iraq