Concern activist’s phone infected with spyware during Dublin conference

Ebtisam al-Saegh’s phone hacked by Pegasus software, human rights groups say

Evidence of the spyware, developed by Israeli company NSO, was found following an examination of  Ebtisam al-Saegh’s phone by human rights groups. Photograph: iStock

Evidence of the spyware, developed by Israeli company NSO, was found following an examination of Ebtisam al-Saegh’s phone by human rights groups. Photograph: iStock

 

Human rights campaigners have expressed concern over revelations that a Bahraini activist’s phone was compromised with spyware around the time she attended a Front Line Defenders conference in Dublin two years ago.

The mobile phone of Bahraini human rights campaigner Ebtisam al-Saegh was hacked using sophisticated Pegasus spyware, according to a report by human rights groups published on Monday.

Evidence of the spyware, developed by Israeli company NSO, was found following an examination of Ms al-Saegh’s phone by human rights group Front Line Defenders, and digital rights organisation AccessNow.

The campaigner’s phone was compromised by the spyware on several occasions between August and November 2019, the organisations stated in a report.

In early October 2019, Ms al-Saegh visited Ireland to address a human rights conference organised by Front Line Defenders in Dublin Castle.

The activist has frequently criticised alleged human rights abuses in Bahrain, and detailed her extensive harassment by authorities in the Middle Eastern country at the Dublin conference.

Andrew Anderson, executive director of Front Line Defenders, who are based in Dublin, expressed concern that the Pegasus software targeting Ms al-Saegh’s phone at the time “could have been used to spy” on the event in Dublin, as well as communications she had with other human rights activists at the time.

The Pegasus spyware is able to intercept a phone’s messages, photographs, and turn the phone into a remote listening device for the client using the software.

‘Deep pain’

During the visit to Dublin, Ms al-Saegh also met Gearóid Ó Cuinn, director of Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), a London-based human rights organisation.

Mr Ó Cuinn said the organisation had met Ms al-Saegh, and communicated with other Bahraini activists during the trip, to record testimonies of human rights abuses in the country. The discussions detailed “serious allegations of medical abuse and torture” in hospitals in Bahrain, he said.

The group were concerned the confidential testimony “may have been intercepted by the very authorities the allegations were being made about,” he said.

In a statement, Ms al-Saegh said she felt “deep pain” upon learning her phone had been targeted by the spyware, which she said was an attack “on all those who place their trust in me to speak up for their human rights”.

“I can simply no longer feel safe using my smartphone. My private property has been turned into a weapon against me,” she said.

NSO has maintained its Pegasus software is only licensed for use by clients to target suspected terrorists or serious criminals, and it should not be used to monitor journalists or activists.

The company has repeatedly said it investigates any alleged misuse of the technology by clients, which could result in those contracts being terminated.