KARACHI: Human rights defenders in Pakistan are under threat from a targeted campaign of digital attacks, which has seen social media accounts hacked and computers and mobile phones infected with spyware, a four-month investigation by Amnesty International revealed.
In a new report released on Tuesday titled ‘Human Rights Under Surveillance: Digital Threats Against Human Rights Defenders in Pakistan’, the human rights watchdog revealed how attackers were using fake online identities and social media profiles to ensnare Pakistani human rights defenders online and mark them out for surveillance and cybercrime.
“We uncovered an elaborate network of attackers who are using sophisticated and sinister methods to target human rights activists. Attackers use cleverly designed fake profiles to lure activists and then attack their electronic devices with spyware, exposing them to surveillance and fraud and even compromising their physical safety,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Director of Global Issues at Amnesty International.
HR watchdog calls on authorities to carry out investigation to identify perpetrators
The investigation showed how attackers used fake Facebook and Google login pages to trick their victims into revealing their passwords. “It is already extremely dangerous to be a human rights defender in Pakistan and it is alarming to see how attacks on their work are moving online,” he said.
The report highlighted the case of Diep Saeeda, a prominent civil society activist from Lahore. On December 2, 2017, one of her friends, Raza Mehmood Khan, a peace activist who tried to bring people from India and Pakistan together through activities like letter-writing, was subjected to an enforced disappearance.
Ms Saeeda began publicly calling for Mr Raza’s release, including petitioning the Lahore High Court. Soon after, she began to receive suspicious messages from people claiming to be concerned about Mr Raza’s well-being, the report found.
As per Amnesty International’s investigation, a Facebook user who claimed to be an Afghan woman named Sana Halimi — living in Dubai and working for the UN — repeatedly contacted Ms Saeeda via Facebook Messenger, saying that she had information about Mr Raza. The operator of the profile sent her links to files containing malware called StealthAgent which, if opened, would have infected her mobile devices.
The profile — which the human rights watchdog believed was fake — was also used to trick Ms Saeeda into divulging her email address, to which she started receiving emails infected with a Windows spyware commonly known as Crimson.
Amnesty found that several human rights activists in Pakistan have been targeted in this way, sometimes by people claiming to be human rights activists themselves.
Ms Saeeda also received emails claiming to be from staff of the Punjab chief minister. The emails included false details of a supposed upcoming meeting between the provincial ministry of education and her organisation, the Institute for Peace and Secular Studies. In other cases, the attackers pretended to be students looking for guidance and tuition from Ms Saeeda.
“Every time I open an email I am now scared. It’s getting so bad I am actually not able to carry out my work — my social work is suffering,” she told Amnesty.
Amnesty International’s Technology and Human Rights team was able to trace these attacks to a group of individuals based in Pakistan. The report revealed the network of individuals and companies behind the creation of some of the tools seen in surveillance operations used to target individuals in the country.
Over the past few months, it added, Amnesty had noted with alarm that activists were being subjected to threats, intimidation, violent attacks and enforced disappearances. They included journalists, bloggers, peaceful protesters and other mainstays of civil society.
“As an elected member of the UN Human Rights Council, Pakistan has a responsibility to uphold the highest international standards. It has repeatedly vowed to protect human rights activists and criminalise enforced disappearances, but what we are seeing shows they have done nothing on this front while the situation is getting worse,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali.
“The Pakistani authorities must immediately order an independent and effective investigation into these attacks, and ensure that human rights defenders are protected both online and off,” he added.
Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2018