Weeks before her wedding to Washington Post journalist Jamal Kashoggi, security agents surrounded Hanan Elatr at the Dubai International Airport. The authorities snapped handcuffs on her wrists, blindfolded her, and drove her to an interrogation room at the edge of the city, where Elatr spent 17 hours detained and facing interrogation about her then-fiancé. Meanwhile, Emirati officials confiscated her phone and infected it with military-grade spyware, capable of recording her private conversations and downloading her text messages, emails, and photos.
Elatr is among Pegasus spyware’s many targets. Pegasus is a surveillance software that made headlines in July 2021, after Paris-based non-profit Forbidden Stories and human rights group Amnesty International leaked a list of 50,000 phone numbers belonging to Pegasus’ potential targets. The list raised questions about civilians’ right to privacy and the use of surveillance to intimidate and silence. The software usually infects smartphones remotely or through text messages containing malware, accessing the target’s microphone, photos, messaging apps, and browser without the user’s knowledge. Because Pegasus can deploy remote or “zero-click” attacks, anyone could be vulnerable.
The NSO Group (NSO), the Israeli company that created the software, claims that it sells Pegasus strictly for anti-terrorism purposes and does not deploy it against private citizens or government officials. However, governments and other entities have paid millions for the software to infect the devices of activists, journalists, and politicians around the world. Though targets have ranged from Amazon chief Jeff Bezos to the prime minister of Pakistan, the NSO’s approach to its female targets is especially sinister. Unlike cis-male victims of Pegasus, women consistently face severe and violent repercussions after they are hacked, shattering their relationships and lives. NSO clients have exploited the realities of gender inequality to smear, blackmail, and harass women, resulting in their physical, sexual, and psychological harm. The UN defines such acts as violence against women.
USING WOMEN TO SPY BY PROXY
Just months after the implantation of Pegasus spyware on Elatr’s phone, Saudi government agents assassinated Kashoggi at the Kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. Elatr, who was in a long-distance relationship with her husband, later learned that the UAE, an ally of the Saudi Arabian government, had been surveilling her through her phone. She was targeted not because of her own activities, but because of her relationship with Khashoggi, a journalist known for his criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
Gender norms and inequality already discourage women from speaking out; surveilling them with spyware threatens to silence them.
The couple had communicated frequently over messaging apps like WhatsApp, and Elatr feared that Saudi operatives were tracking Khashoggi through her phone, leading to his murder. After his death, Elatr left her job as a traveling Emirates supervisor and is now seeking asylum in Turkey. She lives in a basement, frightened and hiding, earning a meager living as a waitress. Pegasus surveillance, therefore, restricted Elatr’s movements and impinged on her personal freedoms, which are both violations of her human rights.
This is a global issue. In Africa, Carine Kanimba, daughter of Hotel Rwanda activist Paul Rusesabagina, was also targeted. Rwandan authorities arrested Rusesabagina — a vocal critic of the Kagame government — in Dubai for alleged terrorism charges in 2020. Kanimba and her family sought assistance from the international community to free her father. Soon after, in July 2021, Amnesty International conducted a forensic analysis of Kanimba’s devices and found that her conversations with US diplomats and British MPs were being monitored, mostly likely by the Rwandan government. Kanimba and her family live in constant fear that they are being watched. She must constantly assess whether what she says, posts or photographs could have a negative impact on her father or his case. By heightening her sense of paranoia, her monitors seek to silence her and quash her efforts to free her father. Gender norms and inequality already discourage women from speaking out; surveilling them with spyware threatens to silence them.
SMEARING FEMALE ACTIVISTS AND JOURNALISTS
Journalist and human rights activist Hajar Raissouni was an active critic of the Moroccan government. Her journalism exposed the political and economic marginalization Moroccans face in the country’s Rif region — until authorities stopped her in her tracks. They did so not by addressing her work directly, but by stalking her with Pegasus Spyware and then smearing her character.
In 2019, authorities arrested Raissouni outside a medical clinic and detained her. The police performed a nonconsensual and invasive medical examination. Then they used the evidence of this forcible examination as proof that Raisouni had received an abortion, which is illegal in Morocco, even though her doctor testified that she had visited the clinic to remove a blood clot. The authorities had traced Raissouni to her gynecologist using Pegasus spyware. When the authorities questioned her, Raisouni said, “they told me things about me that no one could know unless they read my diary moment by moment.”
Though Raissouni was pardoned by King Mohammed VI, Morocco’s current head of state, plainclothes police continued to follow and surveil her. In Morocco, maligning a woman’s reputation based on her sexual conduct is enough to permanently damage her credibility. The falsehoods published about Raissouni not only harm her public persona as a journalist but also threaten her personal safety; the fallout from these stories has led to her harassment in person and online. Raissouni’s story is another example of the gender-based violence facilitated by Pegasus spyware. The authorities used surveillance to arrest her and subject her to a medical exam without her consent, causing her sexual harm. The surveillance also destroyed her livelihood, reputation, and ability to speak out, constituting an arbitrary revocation of freedom.
Like Raissouni, Al Jazeera reporter Ghada Oueiss saw herself as a serious journalist unafraid of asking tough questions before her encounter with Pegasus. As a vocal critic of the Saudi regime and other authoritarian governments, she had grown used to receiving hateful messages online. But, when she discovered that a photograph of her sitting in a jacuzzi, dressed in a bikini was circulating on Twitter, she was horrified. The photograph, taken on her smartphone, had been private. “It was as if someone had entered my home, my bedroom, my bathroom. I felt so unsafe and traumatized,” said Oueiss in an interview with NBC News. Based on her harassment by Saudi bots, Oueiss suspects that the Saudi government or their ally, the UAE, is responsible for hacking her phone.
The breach of her smartphone demonstrates the difference between privacy and secrecy. Though Oueiss’ photograph did not incriminate her, she maintained the right to keep the photo private. The use of surveillance to sully Oueiss’ journalistic integrity and reputation targets her as a woman. “I lived again and again the pictures and the harassment, the comments, the talking about my body, accusing me of prostitution,” she said. Similar aspersions are rarely levied at men, making this brand of surveillance intimate and gendered.
Proponents of surveillance may argue that if women like Elatr, Kanimba, Raissouni, and Oueiss have nothing to hide, then they have nothing to fear. They fail to grasp the indelible right to privacy as well as the intimate and violent nature of Pegasus attacks, especially for women. Breaches of privacy are inherently violent and gendered because they threaten a woman’s reputation, bodily integrity, livelihood, and personal safety. The international community must act to ban the sale and use of Pegasus spyware and similar technology and uphold their commitments to women’s rights.
Anjali Khatri leads the Blog Team at Project Stree, a non-profit dedicated to empowering young women and girls in India and providing them with sustainable period products.