Between June 2020 and February 2021, Bahrain surveilled human rights activists, dissidents, and members of political opposition, according to a new study by Citizen Lab named: “From Pearl to Pegasus; Bahraini Government Hacks Activists with NSO Group Zero-Click iPhone Exploits” prepared and written by Bill Marczak, Ali Abdulemam, Noura Al-Jizawi, Siena Anstis, Kristin Berdan, John Scott-Railton, and Ron Deibert.
The study reveals that the Bahraini government is a client to NSO since 2017; an Israeli surveillance company regulated by Israel’s ministry of defense, which approves sale of NSO’s spyware technology to governments around the world.
While NSO says it only sells to military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies in 40 unnamed countries for the purpose of terrorism and crime investigations, and it thoroughly vets its customers’ human rights records before allowing them to use its spy tools, that’s not the case in reality.
The targets were bloggers, activists, journalists and oppositionists from around the world. The information was found after an investigation that centered on a data leak of more than 50,000 phone numbers that, since 2016, were believed to have been selected as belonging to people of potential interest by government clients of NSO.
The new findings by Citizen Lab in relation to Bahrain point out that members of Waad, members of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and a member of al-Wefaq were targets by Pegasus spyware.
It is worth noting that Bahrain’s record on human rights in recent years still witness a sharp deterioration. Activists, including international human rights organizations continue to call the international players to address the ongoing crackdown on Bahraini civil society by the Bahraini government and to put pressure on Bahrain to end the use of oppression against dissidents and the ban on opposition parties and other civil society groups.
“While NSO Group continuously tries to deny any violation, their customer list contains several notorious misusers of surveillance technology. Selling Pegasus to Bahrain is worrisome knowing its longstanding history of oppression and misuse of technology, however the fact that Bahrain uses spyware to target political opposition and activists, given its record of repression is not quite a surprise. The real concern is: what now? Will all parties involved in these violations still enjoy impunity?” said Nedal Al Salman, President of Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.
Since more than a decade now, the government of Bahrain has been increasingly using Internet controls and spyware, targeting individuals inside and outside Bahrain. Since 2010, Bahrain has been reported purchasing spyware from FinFisher, Hacking Team, and NSO Group.
Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) reminds the government of Bahrain of its record being one of the Middle East’s most repressive states, and one that has systematically eliminated a broad range of political rights and civil liberties, dismantled the political opposition, and cracked down harshly on persistent dissent. We also remind the government in Bahrain of when in 2017, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, remarked that “the government of Bahrain has imposed severe restrictions on civil society and political activism through arrests, intimidation, travel bans and closure orders, with increasing reports of torture by the security authorities,” adding that “the democratic space in the country has essentially been shut down.”
While the work of human rights defenders must be protected because they are the ones promoting the respect of human rights worldwide, BCHR members are facing more suppression and are being target to a government that has shut down all civil space with a tight grip.
BCHR still call on the government of Bahrain to initiate genuine reform and build new strategies for an inclusive dialogue with all political parties instead of putting energy and wasting resources in tracking them down and surveilling them.