Casablanca — Campaigners say cyber weapons that meant to fight terrorism are often being turned on journalists, academics and lawyers, violating their privacy
A Moroccan human rights lawyer, who fled into exile after his phone was hacked, called for urgent international action to protect activists from the growing threat of cyber spies.
Abdessadak El Bouchtaoui said he believed the Moroccan government targeted him for defending protesters from the Hirak movement, whose demands for an end to injustice and corruption in 2016 and 2017 echoed those of the "Arab Spring".
"I'm not the first, last, or only victim," El Bouchtaoui told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from France, where he sought asylum in 2018 after a Moroccan court sentenced him to 20 months in jail for inciting unrest and insulting authorities.
"I ask that international organisations make efforts to find solutions and protect human rights defenders because social media and the internet play a very important role in our ability to communicate, publish reports, and share information."
Morocco's communications ministry and foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
El Bouchtaoui's call for tougher regulation of spyware comes after Facebook Inc's WhatsApp sued NSO Group last week, alleging the Israeli cyber firm sold a tool that hacked the phones of 1,400 diplomats and dissidents in 20 countries this year.
The case threw a spotlight on a growing debate about cyber weapons that are meant to fight terrorism often being turned on journalists, academics and lawyers, which campaigners say violates their privacy and international human rights law.
Human rights group Amnesty International said last month that El Bouchtaoui and another activist, Maati Monjib, were hacked with the same NSO Group malware, known as Pegasus, which has been linked to political surveillance across the globe.
NSO Group said in emailed comments that its products are sold to governments for the sole purposes of fighting crime and terrorism, and that it investigates all alleged cases of misuse.
El Bouchtaoui was among some 300 lawyers defending the Hirak movement, which was born after fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri was crushed to death inside a garbage truck trying to recover fish confiscated by police in the northern Rif region.
The lawyer said his suspicions of being monitored began when he started defending Hirak, and his fears grew after a witness he spoke to on the phone about an activist's death was arrested.
"With these applications, the authorities can track us, they can know everything," said El Bouchtaoui.
"This is very dangerous for human rights defenders. It's a great obstacle for us and our work."
Amnesty said it suspected the hackers - who sent virus-laden texts which, when clicked, downloaded malware allowing phones to be monitored - worked for the Moroccan government, although conclusive technical evidence was not found.
El Bouchtaoui said he still fears for his life in France and lives under constant police surveillance for his protection.
- Reporting by Smaranda Tolosano. Editing by Nellie Peyton and Katy Migiro