OF ALL THE ORGANISATIONS to snoop on, do-gooders Amnesty International would not be at the top of our lists.
However, the human rights organisation said this week that an employee was targeted by a malicious spyware campaign delivered through WhatsApp in June.
A message, written in Arabic, requested the organisation to cover a protest in front of the Saudi embassy in Washington DC and contained a link to a website promising information about the alleged protest.
However, the link - had it been clicked - a would have installed a spyware tool dubbed Pegasus.
Pegasus is a sophisticated surveillance tool developed by Israeli hacking company NSO Group, which according to Amnesty International's head of technology and human rights Joshua Franco, is only sold to governments.
"We therefore believe that this was a deliberate attempt to infiltrate Amnesty International by a government hostile to our human rights work," said Franco.
"The potent state hacking tools manufactured by NSO Group allow for an extraordinarily invasive form of surveillance. A smartphone infected with Pegasus is essentially controlled by the attacker - it can relay phone calls, photos, messages and more directly to the operator.
"This chilling attack on Amnesty International highlights the grave risk posed to activists around the world by this kind of surveillance technology."
NSO Group said it will look into such claims by Amnesty and noted its hacking tools aren't pushed out for snooping purposes.
"NSO Group develops cyber technology to allow government agencies to identify and disrupt terrorist and criminal plots. Our product is intended to be used exclusively for the investigation and prevention of crime and terrorism. Any use of our technology that is counter to that purpose is a violation of our policies, legal contracts, and the values that we stand for as a company," the company said.
Amnesty added that the message its staffer received appeared to be related to the activity it has been carrying out around the release of six women's rights activists detained in Saudi Arabia.
"Can you please cover [the protest] for your brothers detained in Saudi Arabia in front of the Saudi embassy in Washington. My brother was detained in Ramadan and I am on a scholarship here so please do not link me to this. [LINK]. Cover the protest now it will start in less than an hour. We need your support please," the Arabic text read.
However, Amnesty didn't speculate on who the attack may have come from. It could potentially have been the clandestine activities of the Saudi government, that of other Arabic nations, or even from non-Arabic countries masquerading as Arabic natives.
Franco reckons the spying attempt is part of a wider campaign to snoop on human rights activists worldwide, but was adamant that such clandestine hacking won't curtail Amnesty's work.
"Defending human rights is not a crime, and we refuse to be intimidated by this attack. Attempts to spy on us will never prevent Amnesty International from speaking up for truth, justice and equality," he said.
"We are working with human rights activists to help them protect themselves against similar cowardly attacks, and ensure that abusive governments cannot use technology to silence them."
Government snooping is en vogue at the moment, but it's not an easy process to do legally; just look at how parts of the UK Investigatory Powers Act have been ripped out by privacy campaigners. µ
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