Amnesty International’s Security Lab has confirmed that at least four Kazakhstani civil society activists have had their mobile devices infected with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. A forensic analysis shows that all four activists had been targeted and their devices infected from as early as June 2021, Amnesty International said today.
“This case adds to an already mounting pile of evidence that NSO’s spyware is the weapon of choice for governments seeking to silence social movements and crush dissent. States across the globe must immediately implement a moratorium on the export, sale and use of surveillance equipment until a human rights-compliant regulatory framework is in place,” Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said.
Amnesty International’s Security Lab conducted forensic analysis on the phones of nine Kazakhstani human rights activists. Amnesty International was able to confirm that four individuals’ devices were infected with the Pegasus spyware. Three of the victims, Tamina Ospanova, Dimash Alzhanov and Aizat Abilseit, had previously received a “state-sponsored attacker” warning from Apple on 24 November. Apple sent these notifications to individuals they believed may have been targeted by NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. The fourth victim, Darkhan Sharipov, did not receive this notification, which suggests that the notified individuals represent only a fraction of the human rights activists targeted with the Pegasus spyware in Kazakhstan.
All of the victims belong to the civic youth movement “Oyan, Qazaqstan” (Wake Up, Kazakhstan). The victims are friends of Temirlan Ensebek, whose satirical blogging on Instagram is under criminal investigation.
The mobile devices of all four activists were infected with the spyware between 3 and 5 June 2021. On 5 June, “Oyan, Qazaqstan” was hosting one of their public #Seruen events where activists could meet face-to-face in public spaces. The surveillance campaign continued until at least July 2021.
“The unlawful hacking of these activists not only violates their right to privacy, but also their right to freedom of expression and association. The Kazakhstani authorities must immediately conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into this intrusion and bring those responsible for unlawful surveillance of activists to account,” said Marie Struthers.
NSO Group’s spyware has been used to facilitate human rights violations around the world on a massive scale, according to a major investigation into the leak of 50,000 phone numbers of potential surveillance targets. These include heads of state, activists and journalists. According to media reports, nearly 2,000 phone numbers are from Kazakhstan.
The Pegasus Project is a ground-breaking collaboration by more than 80 journalists from 17 media organizations in 10 countries, coordinated by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based media non-profit, with the technical support of Amnesty International, who conducted cutting- edge forensic tests on mobile phones to identify traces of the spyware.
“Oyan, Qazaqstan” (Wake up, Kazakhstan) is a grassroots civil society movement formed in June 2019 in response to the arrest of local activists Beybarys Tolymbekov and Asiya Tolesova. They were arrested for putting up a poster on Al-Farabi Avenue in Almaty during the 2019 marathon, which stated “You can’t escape the truth,” and included a call for fair presidential elections. “Oyan, Qazaqstan” demands greater civil rights and a parliamentary republic, and voices socially progressive positions in support of LGBTQI rights and gender equality.