Morocco denies having any relationship with the company NSO Group and its spy software

An analyst from the Alawite kingdom has denounced an Amnesty International report accusing Morocco of using the company's spying programs
Journalist and activist Omar Radi in Casablanca, Morocco, 12 March 2020

REUTERS/YOUSSEF BOUDLAL  -   Journalist and activist Omar Radi in Casablanca, Morocco, 12 March 2020

Amnesty International on Monday published a report on the use of spying programs produced by the Israeli company NSO Group to control activist and journalist Omar Radi, known to work for various national and international media such as Atlantic Radio and TelQuel. However, Morocco has denied these accusations claiming that it has never had a relationship with NSO Group, the company in charge of designing this type of software. 

Sede del grupo israelí NSO, en Herzliya, cerca de Tel Aviv
AFP/ JACK GUEZ - Headquarters of the Israeli group NSO, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv

"The lack of transparency around the surveillance industry makes it difficult to know what tools are being used, sold, bought and abused, and therefore for victims and surveillance agencies to demand accountability," warned the report published by Amnesty International in which the organization noted that after analyzing Omar Radi's mobile phone, they had concluded that it was infected with a powerful spyware system designed by an Israeli company. "These devices act as portable base stations and pass themselves off as legitimate cell towers," said Amnesty International, which has also said that this spyware allows access to all data stored on the phone and even activates the camera and microphone. 

"The Moroccan services have no relationship with the Israeli company NSO and Morocco does not have the Pegasus software. Everything Amnesty International has raised in this regard is wrong and unfounded," a Moroccan intelligence officer told digital Le360. The NSO Group warns on its website that they only sell their products to government agencies, claiming that "NSO products are used exclusively by government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight crime and terror.

Tarjetas SIM. El 14 de mayo de 2019, WhatsApp animó a sus usuarios a actualizar la aplicación para cubrir una brecha de seguridad que permitía a atacantes sofisticados introducir a escondidas programas espía en los teléfonos
PHOTO/AP - SIM cards. On May 14, 2019, WhatsApp encouraged its users to update the application to address a security gap that allowed sophisticated attackers to sneak spyware into phones

Thus, in the report issued by Amnesty International, the organization claimed that in analyzing Omar Radi's iPhone they had found evidence of Pegasus software. "In October 2019, we documented for the first time the evidence that the NSO Group's tools were used to attack two Moroccan human rights defenders," they said. In support of this allegation, Amnesty International reported that it "had found traces on Radi's phone suggesting that he was subjected to the same injection attacks as those observed against other human rights defenders in the country as happened to Maati Monjib". ​​​​​​​

The digital Le360 has pointed out that Maati Monjib presented himself as a human rights defender persecuted by public authorities when he was actually being investigated for a "common law case". "Maati Monjib owns several pieces of real estate and land that cannot be acquired with her income, even if he lives to the age of 1,000". According to Amnesty, NSO's hacking system used a technique based on sending a text message to the mobile phone. Once the user opened this SMS, the device was infected. However, this technique evolved in 2018 causing the user to click on an Internet link and be redirected for a few seconds to another link that was capable of providing access to all the data on the phone. 

A computer network expert explained to Le 360 that in both cases it is possible to "have a fingerprint that identifies either the phone operator used in the case of SMS hacking, or the geographic location in the case of redirection to another site" and it has been questioned why the Amnesty International laboratory has not made an effort to identify the message's sender. "Every act on the web leaves a trail to identify it. The IP is the equivalent of the certificate of residence for this act," said the expert. 

El periodista y activista Omar Radi habla con los medios de comunicación fuera del tribunal en Casablanca, Marruecos, el 12 de marzo de 2020
REUTERS/YOUSSEF BOUDLAL - Journalist and activist Omar Radi speaks to the media outside the courthouse in Casablanca, Morocco, on 12 March 2020

At this point, the analyst interviewed by Le 360 wonders who Omar Radi is and why the Moroccan government should be concerned about him. An article previously published by Chouf TV to which Le 360 had access sheds light on the "tariff relations between Omar Radi and two foreign companies specialising in economic intelligence". According to this information, since 2018, Radi has been gathering information on behalf of two Anglo-Saxon companies: G3 (Good Governance Group Limited) and K2 Intelligence Limited. "When you play at being a spy, you should not play at being the victim when you are spied on by international agencies," the digital Le360 has stressed. 

Amnesty International has also recommended in its report that the Moroccan authorities and countries exporting this software should implement a regulatory framework governing surveillance. "Until this framework comes into force, a moratorium on the sale, transfer and use of surveillance equipment should be implemented, as recommended by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, David Kaye," they said. Meanwhile, Morocco considers that Amnesty's harassment of the NSO Group for selling a successful piracy system in Morocco "is also unproven". 

Fotografia de archivo Shalev Hulio, cofundador del Grupo NSO
PHOTO/REUTERS - Archival Photography Shalev Hulio, co-founder of NSO Group

"The intelligence that Morocco shares with foreign countries is a product of its agents in the field and not of technological performance. This attachment of the Moroccan intelligence community to the human element seems to be coming back into fashion in several countries, which have recognized the limitations of technology," said the analyst interviewed by Le360. 

Last November, WhatsApp presented a complaint in a United States court against the company NSO Group. In May, WhatsApp's encrypted messaging service detected a vulnerability in its system that allowed spyware to be installed on phones to access data on the devices. "This should serve as a warning to technology companies, governments and all Internet users. The tools that allow for the surveillance of our private lives are being abused, and the proliferation of this technology in the hands of irresponsible companies and governments puts us all at risk," said Will Cathcart, head of WhatsApp at the time.