Hackers used booby trapped text messages to retrieve data stored in cellphones

Amnesty International’s report details how booby-trapped text messages were used to collect information stored locally on cellphones.

A research by Amnesty International has uncovered that hackers armed with sophisticated spying software have been targeting Moroccan human rights activists midst a government crackdown on protests in recent years.

The report released by the British non-profit human rights advocacy organization traces how two prominent Moroccan activists were repeatedly targeted since, at least 2017, with virus-laden text messages and through an internet interception technique, which can covertly plant malware on cell phones.

The findings are a pointer how groups, including governments, are able to purchase sophisticated hacking tools and expertise from vendors to spy on journalists, activists, and their rivals.

According to Claudio Guarnieri, a security researcher at Amnesty, the two affected human rights activists, Abdessadik El Bouchattaoui and Maati Monjib, were successfully targeted using tools developed by an Israeli cyber arms dealer known as the NSO Group.

He went on to add, the suspected hackers worked for the Moroccan government, however conclusive technical evidence was not found.

“Amnesty believes these attacks to be unlawful and a violation of the rights of the (activists),” said Guarnieri. “There is an inevitable link to Moroccan authorities having been behind these attacks.”

The Amnesty report details how the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware platform, used text messages with embedded malware to target Monjib and Bouchattaoui and were able to retrieve information stored on their cellphones.

“I knew I was being monitored by state intelligence but I didn’t know how (before),” said Bouchattaoui.

The booby-trapped text messages, reviewed by Amnesty, were sent between 2017 and 2018.

“You cannot count on companies like NSO to disclose how their products are used to repress and snoop. That is why technical research like Amnesty’s latest report is so critical to the debate,” said John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher with the digital civil society group Citizen Lab. “We are confident that this is indeed NSO.”

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