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Market grows in Africa for weaponised spyware aimed at activists, journalists




By Lisa Vives

IF you’re worried about robocalls offering a dubious sale of bitcoins, a new technology aimed at political dissidents will chill you to the bone.

Pegasus, an all-seeing spyware, worms its way into phones and starts transmitting the owner’s location, encrypted chats, travel plans – and even the voices of people you meet – to servers around the world.

Citizen Lab, a Toronto-based internet watchdog, is notifying journalists, human rights activists and other members of civil society whose phones have been targeted using the spyware.

On the list of targeted individuals, many are said to be from Rwanda and include a journalist living in exile in Uganda; a senior member of the Rwanda National Congress, an opposition group in exile; and an army officer who fled the country in 2008 and testified against members of the Rwandan government in a French court in 2017.

“It’s a grave violation,” says Placide Kayumba, a Belgium-based member of Rwanda’s FDU-Inkingi opposition party, who was informed by Citizen Lab that his phone was targeted.

“It’s scary, not only due to the information I exchange as a human-rights activist and politician, but my conversations with family, friends, all the private details I have shared on the phone.”

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“All of my colleagues at the center of the party are monitored and threatened on a daily basis with assassination, disappearance, imprisonment,” he says.

Last year, Citizen Lab, in a report titled ‘Hide and Seek’ identified 45 countries in which infected devices had been traced. Twelve African countries were on the list: Algeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Kenya, Libya, Morocco, Rwanda, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia and South Africa.

The NY-based Committee to Protect Journalists issued a safety advisory: “This spyware gives the attacker the ability to monitor, record, and collect existing and future data from the phone… The spyware can remotely activate the camera and microphone to surveil the target and their surroundings … Journalists will likely only know if their phone has been infected if the device is inspected by a tech expert.”

“The threat this poses to journalists can’t be overstated,” said Avi Ascher-Shapiro, a NY-based technology and foreign affairs journalist at the Columbia Journalism Review.

Developed by the Israeli cyberarms firm, NSO Group, Pegasus is not alone in the domestic spying field. In Uganda, the Chinese firm Huawei developed spyware to break into opposition leader Bobi Wine’s WhatsApp chat group, causing cancellation of street rallies and the arrests of Wine and dozens of his supporters.

Lisa Vives writes from New York City

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