* Pegasus Program puts women at greater risk in the Global South * Women are used as “farmers” to accomplish other goals
* “Intimate” material collected by spyware hits women harder By Rina Chandran and Maya Gebeily
BANGKOK / BEIRUT, Aug 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Dozens of women across India, the Middle East and North Africa who were likely monitored by governments with Pegasus spyware are now at increased risk of being blackmailed or harassed, Tech experts and victims said. Developed by Israeli technology company NSO, Pegasus turns a mobile phone into a surveillance device – with its microphone and cameras and without the user’s knowledge, to access and export messages, photos and emails.
The use of the software in countries with little data protection, restricted freedom of expression and largely conservative societies can pose a particular risk for women, warned human rights activists. “A woman who is monitored is different from a man who is attacked because any information can always be used to blackmail or discredit her,” said Anushka Jain of the Internet Freedom Foundation in Delhi, the two activists – including a woman – who were targeted.
“Women are already being molested online. If they think they can be monitored, they could censor themselves even more and are just afraid to speak up,” said Jain, associate counsel. A leaked database of 50,000 phone numbers that may have been compromised between 2017 and 2019 contained dozens of women – 60 of them from India, including journalists, activists and housewives, according to Indian news portal The Wire.
A potential target was a former Supreme Court employee who charged then-Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment, although the judges later dismissed the case. Several members of her family were also on the list. “She was not a public figure so she was not monitored for any other reason (complaint),” Jain said of the woman, whose identity has not been publicly disclosed.
“It’s a massive invasion of your privacy,” Jain told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The Indian authorities have refused to say whether the government bought Pegasus spyware for surveillance, saying only that “unauthorized surveillance is not taking place”.
In a statement emailed, an NSO spokesman said it “is conducting vigorous pre-sale human rights and legal compliance reviews to minimize the potential for abuse” and has restricted access to customers found to be using the technology abuse. The spokesman declined to say whether any of these closures were related to the use of material collected on Pegasus to blackmail or otherwise intimidate women.
“PAWEN TO CALCULATE POINTS” In India and beyond, it has been suggested that some women were targeted not because of their activities, but because they were related to other potential targets.
Abha Singh, a lawyer and former bureaucrat in Mumbai, said the news that she was a potential target was “a big shock”. Her brother, a senior law enforcement officer, was also on the list, according to The Wire.
“Women have become pawns to pay bills and are not involved for anything other than who they are associated with,” said Singh. “But I will not be silenced, I will continue my work,” said Singh, who deals with issues such as gender equality and freedom of expression.
A similar trend has emerged in the Middle East and North Africa, said Alia Ibrahim, co-founder of Daraj, the regional media company that worked with Amnesty on the Pegasus project. She estimated that a third of the potential targets in the region were women – including right-backs and journalists, as well as women associated or self-targeted with powerful men.
“That is the justification – that you are mother, wife, daughter,” said Ibrahim. The most famous targets were probably Princess Latifa, daughter of the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum, and Princess Haya Bint al-Hussein, her stepmother and former wife of the Prime Minister.
The possibility that their phones – and those of two of Latifa’s friends – were being monitored has been linked to thwarting the younger princess’ attempt to escape from the United Arab Emirates in 2018. Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of the murdered Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi, and his wife Hanan al-Atar were identified as possible targets.
Among the nearly 10,000 phone numbers leaked linked to Morocco were Salma Bennani – the king’s wife who herself was identified as a potential target – and Claude Mangin, the French wife of Sahrawi activist Naama Asfari, who has been in Morocco since 2010 is imprisoned. That caused a wider malaise among women in the region who never thought they could be the target of such extensive surveillance, Ibrahim said.
“You get paranoid or fear that you will be watched all the time because of the people you know,” she added. “PHYSICAL VIOLENCE”
Even if the researchers could confirm that a device was compromised, they couldn’t determine what material might have been collected – raising concerns that private conversations or revealing photos were being carried away. Cell phones contain information that is “deeply personal and intimate,” so hacking has a bigger impact on women, said Vrinda Bhandari, a lawyer working on digital rights and privacy in India.
“When their phone is hacked, women experience it not only as an invasion of privacy, but also as a violation of their physical integrity – much like physical violence,” she said. This pressure is known to Moroccan journalist Hajar Raissouni, who was sentenced to one year in prison in 2019 for premarital sex and an illegal abortion in Morocco, unless the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life.
Raissouni told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that her number and that of her husband were listed as possible Pegasus targets. “Your whole phone is at the mercy of the program – so my whole life has been open to these people,” she said.
That made her much more paranoid – she kept erasing pictures from her phone, using codes to communicate with loved ones, and leaving her devices in a separate room during private preservations, she said. “Our chats with our relatives, our friends, photos of our bodies – if they leak that, they can use that against us, considering how quickly this material is spreading on the internet.”
(This story was not edited by Devdiscourse staff and is automatically generated from a syndicated feed.)