Amnesty International: Spies hacked Moroccan activists

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Computer hacker sitting in front of laptop late at night and using phone

Amnesty International says hackers are targeting Moroccan human rights activists with sophisticated computing spying software amid a government crackdown on protests in recent years.

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The latest research done by the Amnesty International and tabled in a report released Wednesday shows how two prominent Moroccan activists were repeatedly targeted since at least 2017 with virus-laden text messages and through an internet interception technique, which can covertly plant malware on cell phones.

The findings show how governments and other groups around the world are able to buy sophisticated hacking tools and expertise from outside vendors to spy on activists, journalists and political rivals.

Claudio Guarnieri, a security researcher with Amnesty, said the two affected human rights activists in Morocco, Maati Monjib and Abdessadik El Bouchattaoui, were hacked with the help of tools developed by an Israeli cyber arms dealer known as NSO Group.

“Amnesty believes these attacks to be unlawful and a violation of the rights of the (activists),” said Guarnieri. “There is an inevitable link to Moroccan authorities having been behind these attacks.”

Messages left with the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rabat and the Moroccan Embassy in Washington on Wednesday were not immediately returned. NSO said it is looking into the allegations.

Monjib said he believed he was spied on because of his involvement in the pro-democracy movement in Morocco. He is the co-founder of the NGO Freedom Now organization, which advocates for a free press in Morocco.

Computer hacker sitting in front of laptop late at night and using phone-Getty Images

The Amnesty report explains how one particular NSO product, known as the Pegasus spyware platform, used text messages with embedded malware targeting Monjib and Bouchattaoui to collect information stored on their cellphones.

“I knew I was being monitored by state intelligence but I didn’t know how (before),” said Bouchattaoui.

The booby-trapped text messages, reviewed by Amnesty, were sent between 2017 and 2018.

Security experts say this type of hacking technique is most common in countries where the government is in control of the domestic telecommunications industry.

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