Phone of prominent Egyptian opposition activist hacked


ISTANBUL, Dec. 16 (Reuters) – The phone of a prominent Egyptian opposition figure in exile has been hacked by two separate pieces of government-run spyware, internet security watchdog Citizen Lab said Thursday.

It said the surveillance programs used against Ayman Nour, a liberal politician and critic of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, were created by the Israeli NSO group and a previously obscure European-based company called Cytrox.

Nours Ghad al-Thawra party blamed Egypt and another unidentified Arab country for hacking his phone. Citizen Lab did not blame anyone for the spying and only said Egypt was a likely Cytrox customer.

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A separate report from Facebook owner Meta Platforms Inc, also scheduled for Thursday, identified Cytrox as a spyware vendor. read more

Facebook’s report did not address Nour’s case but, like Citizen Lab, said Cytrox had Egyptian customers.

Egyptian authorities did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

ABUSE OF TECHNOLOGY

A spokesperson for the NSO group said using cyber tools to track activists and journalists was a serious misuse of technology and that the company had in the past shown its “zero tolerance for this kind of abuse by terminating contracts”.

Messages left with Ivo Malinovsky – who until recently identified himself on LinkedIn as CEO of Cytrox – were not immediately returned.

Nour has long been a fixture of the Egyptian opposition. He ran against veteran leader Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election. Shortly after the vote, he was arrested and jailed for three years on charges of forgery, widely regarded as part of a political vendetta.

He left Egypt after then-military leader Sisi overthrew a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president in 2013 after popular protests, eventually moving to Turkey.

“The shock was that there were two spy programs, not (just) one,” Nour told Reuters.

“I believe in 40 years of public and political work, as an MP, as a presidential candidate, there have been hundreds of signs of any kind of surveillance or invasion of privacy,” he said. “For the first time, I have proof.”

Ghad al-Thawra, registered in France, appealed to French human rights groups, including Paris-based Reporters Without Border (RSF) to support Nour, who also runs a TV station.

Toronto-based Citizen Lab said a second Egyptian figure had also been hacked by Cytrox. It only identified the figure as an exiled journalist who hosts a popular program and is also a critic of Sisi.

The Citizen Lab and Meta reports come as US tech companies, lawmakers and government officials are cracking down on companies whose software has been used to hack social figures around the world.

NSO was recently blacklisted by the US government. Earlier this week, a group of US lawmakers urged the Biden administration to go ahead and punish NSO and three other surveillance companies accused of aiding authoritarian governments in committing human rights abuses. read more

Citizen Lab researcher John Scott-Railton said the compromise of Nour’s phone by two different hacking tools showed the problem of mercenary espionage extended beyond NSO.

“There’s a broader industry that is used to hack the exact same targets in the exact same ways,” he said.

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Reporting by Raphael Satter, Dominic Evans and Elizabeth Culliford Editing by Gareth Jones

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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