Pegasus phone hacks put women across India and MENA region at risk: Tech experts

Aug 11, 2021: From Middle East to India, women in countries with few privacy laws ‘violated’ in Pegasus phone hack.

Tech experts say dozens of women in India, the Middle East and North Africa who were allegedly monitored by governments for using Pegasus spyware are now at increased risk of being blackmailed or harassed.

Developed by the Israeli tech firm NSO, Pegasus turns a mobile phone into a surveillance device, using its microphone and cameras and accessing messages, photos and emails without the user’s knowledge.

Rights activists warn that using the software with certain privacy concerns, limited freedom of expression and widespread conservative societies could pose a particular threat to women.

According to Anushka Jain of the Internet Freedom Foundation in New Delhi, “A woman being monitored is different from a man because any information can be used to blackmail or defame her.”

She says in developing countries in particular, where women are already facing the bulk of online harassment, if they think they can be monitored, they can further censor themselves and be afraid to just talk about their issues.

A leaked database of 50,000 phone numbers that were possibly compromised by the Pegasus hack between 2017 and 2019 included dozens of phone numbers belonging to women.

In an emailed statement, an NSO spokesman said it “examines human rights and legal compliance prior to the sale to minimize the potential for misuse” and removed access that has been found to be a misuse of technology.

The spokesman declined to say whether any of those shut downs were because of blackmailing or threats to women because of Pegasus software.

In India and beyond, some women have been targeted not because of their activities but because they are linked to other potential Pegasus targets.

A similar trend has emerged in the Middle East and North Africa, said Alia Ibrahim, co-founder of Amnesty’s regional media outlet on the Pegasus project.

Ibrahim estimated that one-third of possible targets in the region were women, including rights defenders and journalists, are associated with men who were themselves were targeted by Pegasus.

She said that the only justification is that they are mother, wife, daughter. The most important targets of the Pegasus hack were Princess Latifa, daughter of the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, her stepmother and his ex-wife.

Haya’s phone and that of Princess Latifa’s two female friends, were likely to be surveyed by Pegasus in connection with thwarting the little princess’ attempt to flee the UAE in 2018.

Hatice Sengiz, the fiance of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and his wife, Hanan Elter, were also identified as possible targets of Pegasus.

In Morocco, the nearly 10,000 phone numbers hacked by Pegasus include Princess Lalla Salma Benani – the king’s wife, identified herself as a potential target along with Claude Mangin, the French wife of pro-government activist Naama Asfari who in 2010 was imprisoned in Morocco.

Ibrahim said it created unrest among women in the region who never thought they could be subjected to such surveillance.

Even if researchers can confirm a device was compromised, they cannot identify what material may have been collected, raising concerns that private conversations or revealing photographs may have been swept up by the Pegasus hack.

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