Bahrain: End the use malicious spyware and hold to account those who authorised its use

Salam for Democracy and Human Right (Salam DHR)s echoes concerns and calls made by Access Now, Front Line Defenders, Amnesty International , The Citizen Lab and other human rights activists and organisations in respect to the use by the Government of Bahrain (GoB) of the NSO’s Pegasus spyware in order to hack and access, arbitrarily and against international human rights standards and practices, all aspects of personal data of Bahraini  human rights defender (WHRD), Ebtisam al-Saegh (or: Ibtisam Al-Sayegh) , as held on her mobile phone. 

On 18 January 2022, Salam DHR called on NSO to suspend the GoB’s use of the Pegasus spyware, as provided for by the organisation’s own human rights policies. On 19 January, NSO’s Whistleblowing department acknowledged receipt of the email.

Salam DHR likewise called on the OECD to suspend further engagement with the GoB pending a change in the conduct of its business practices so that it better adheres to international human rights standards. 

In line with the GoB’s frequent assertions that it cooperates with human rights bodies of the United Nations, Salam DHR calls on the GoB to invite experts from the Office of the  High Commission for Human Rights to conduct an independent investigation into the targeted surveillance of  human rights defender, Ebtisam Al-Saegh, with a view to the GoB taking legal action against those who ordered or facilitated the violation of domestic Bahraini, as well as international human rights law. The GoB must hold all who violate the rights of those in Bahrain accountable.

In December 2021, Front Line Defenders and its partners uncovered the GoB’s conduct towards Ebtisam al-Saegh and other WHRDs and its forensic investigation found that the authorities compromised her phone multiple – at least eight –  times in 2019. Yet, the GoB has surveilled activists for nearly a decade: in 2012, Bahrain Watch documented the GoB’s use of spyware  to surveille activists’ emails.

Human Impact

Such surveillance is a violation of Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bahrain is a state party. Such surveillance also creates a chilling, limiting effect on the person targeted, who then changes their own, personal conduct in response to knowing that the authorities have stripped them of their privacy and that their every action may be under surveillance. It restricts the targets’ freedom of movement out of their fear of physical harassment and threat. It is chilling and results in self-isolation. Access Now highlighted the gendered impact of surveillance on women, noting that governments weaponise personal information extracted through spyware to intimidate, harass, and publicly smear dissidents. It results in “Friends and relatives distanc [ing] themselves in fear of also being harmed or surveilled.”

Salam for Democracy and Human Rights colleague, Ebtisam al-Saegh has stated that “personal freedoms are over for me, they no longer exist. I am not safe at home, on the street, or anywhere.”

Ebtisam al-Saegh continues to face state harassment in Bahrain for her human rights activities, which started in 2017, with an act of sexual assault in the National Security Agency building located in the city of Muharraq.

A domestic and international challenge

This matter raises both domestic and international concern: Etienne Maynier, Technologist for the Amnesty Tech Security Lab told Salam DHR that:

These attacks add to the ever-expanding evidence that NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware is a tool of surveillance, oppression and intimidation. After years of abuse, we urgently need global action to prevent further human rights harms linked to the spyware industry.

Bill Marczak, Research Fellow at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs stated that:

The Bahraini Government is probably one of the most notorious abusers of spyware.  Not only does the government spy on virtually all key activists, but the spying is clearly linked to negative consequences, such as imprisonment, dismissals from jobs, and in one case, a blackmail attempt.”

The government’s conduct violates domestic law: Article 26 of the Constitution states that the integrity of post, telegraph, telephone and electronic communication is safeguarded, and its confidentiality guaranteed. Monitoring and/or intercepting as well as disclosing the content of such communication is prohibited. The authorities’ violated domestic legal procedures and guarantees in order to conduct its surveillance. The government’s conduct likewise violates Article 75 of the Bahraini Telecommunications Law. It provides for a fine not exceeding ten thousand Bahraini Dinars on anyone who uses telecommunications equipment to access or disclose the confidentiality of any calls or data related to the content of any message, its sender or the addressee, unless the intercept is pursuant to a permission from the Public Prosecution or an order issued by the competent court.

Recommendations

Salam DHR urges:

  • The NSO Group to suspend with immediate effect the GoB’s use of the Pegasus spyware, as provided for by the organisation’s own human rights policies;
  • The OECD to suspend further engagement with the GoB pending a change in the conduct of its business practices so that it better adheres to international human rights standards;
  • The GoB to make good on its assertions that it cooperates with human rights bodies of the United Nations by inviting experts from the Office of the  High Commission for Human Rights to conduct an independent investigation into targeted surveillance by the government;
  • Bahrain’s Public Prosecutor to investigate and bring to justice in a fair procedure the official or officials that sanctioned the violation of domestic, Bahraini and international law;
  • The GoB to provide an apology and recompense to Ebtisam al-Saegh and any other resident of Bahrain targeted in this manner;
  • Member states of the Human Rights Council to call for an immediate moratorium on the use, sale, and transfer of surveillance technologies produced by private firms until adequate human rights safeguards and regulation be put in place; and for
  • The European Commission to impose restrictive sanctions on NSO Group, at the very least in relation to the Pegasus spyware,  on account of the grave human rights impact its sale has had, including in the European Union.

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For further information, contact:

  • Jawad Fairooz @JawadFairooz (English and Arabic)
  • Drewery Dyke @drewerydyke (English)

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