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Governments on a new low: Weaponising Spyware against Women

Authoritarian regimes are abusing digital rights by using NSO Group’s spyware to hack into the personal data of more than 50,000 people, including high profile women journalists and activists.

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Last month, The Washington Post, The Guardian and other key media outlets released details on a massive hack operated via Israeli surveillance software. The investigation was originally led by a Paris based NGO Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International. Along with 600 politicians, high profile journalists have faced this massive privacy breach from their governments like India, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Morocco, Bahrain, etc.

What’s alarming is that women’s data like their photos have been hacked into for intimidation. NBC’s Olivia Solon interviewed female activists and journalists who have been actively dissenting with Saudi Arabia or are viewed as close to the late journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Ghada Oueiss is a Lebanese broadcast journalist whose private pictures started circulating last June 2020.

Alya Alhwaiti is an activist based in London who has received threats and intimidations; She could tell from her phone’s behaviour that files were being transferred in and out. A late Emirati activist, Alaa al Siddiq had faced similar attacks on her phone, but it was yet to be confirmed. Meanwhile, women rights activists Lina al-Hathloul, who was also jailed by the Saudi government, found her devices were targetted by the UAE government.

Read more: Information warfare: The war of the future

Gendered Implications

Women targetted by these hacks have suffered online harassment, challenging their dignity as professionals in the field. The fifth-generation tech warfare is not just challenging states, but challenging any person with an alternate opinion. For women specifically, matters of their image are sensitive issues especially in middle-eastern countries that are already falling behind in women empowerment.

For instance, as happened with Ghada Oueiss, her leaked photos garnered negative comments and threats mostly from supporters of the current Saudi regime. While women around the world are expecting governments to raise their banners to support them in different facets of life, such rapacious state actions are thus far only enabling widespread physical and cyber harassment.

This weaponisation of spyware against women is likely to deepen the mistrust. Governments can instead manipulate information and data to their advantage in creating smear campaigns, especially on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

Read more: Social media: A safe haven for fifth generation warfare?

On a societal level, this incident signals women that their freedom can be undermined by just one click. One ‘wrong’ word and they can find themselves on the other side of the fence without any capability against these spyware systems.

At this point shifting from WhatsApp to Signal is not an apt security measure as Pegasus can initiate covert recordings, turn on the camera and tap into personal files and information without the user’s knowledge. Even if the majority of the women population has nothing against its government, it is enough of a concern to think each movement is being constantly monitored.

Not a New Phenomenon

Data privacy breaches have become common in recent years. Pegasus fiasco first surfaced in 2016 with UAE utilising this software created by NSO Group. NSO Group is an Israeli private contracting firm that specialises in creating surveillance software to aid governments in intellegence purposes. So far the usage has been improper and deemed these clandestine actions as a human right violation by key international NGOs.

In 2016 several journalists at Al-Jazeera discovered their devices under surveillance. According to Citizen’s Labs report, and once more in December 2020, Al-Jazeera reported ‘zero-click attacks on its journalists. In 2017 its use was reported against Mexican journalists and in 2019 WhatsApp sued NSO Group was exploiting a code to hack its user’s devices.

Read more: Lack of women inclusion in Tech: A grave issue of modern world

The case is still running and active with the support of Google, Cisco and other tech houses against NSO Group. As of now, NSO Group has denied all allegations of the actions of its clients and its founder Shalev Hulio shared that his company is running “checks with past and present clients.”

The world is in flux, and with rapid technological transformations, the issues are evolving. Previously, to avoid persecution from governments, journalists could flee to other countries, but the geographical boundaries have become meaningless in the age of data supremacy.

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