A coalition of news outlets says it has unearthed evidence that Rwandan authorities are among the governments using a powerful surveillance tool to spy on thousands of activists, journalists and politicians through their cellphones.
The spyware, developed by Israeli hackers for a company called the NSO Group, has dubbed the piece of computer programming with the name Pegasus. It reportedly extracts information from cellphones with a single text message that can’t be traced back to the government using it.
So far, Rwanda is the only African country believed to have deployed the spyware to gather information on its political enemies.
The company claims it is merely helping “government intelligence and law-enforcement agencies use technology to meet the challenges of encryption” during terrorism and criminal investigations. But civil liberties groups aren’t happy about the spyware-for-hire business.
Amnesty International, which joined with investigative journalists in the so-called Pegasus Project expressed concerns that the company is providing spyware to oppressive governments, where government agencies can’t be trusted to do right by their citizens.
“NSO Group cannot insist that its products are only used against criminals when more than 3,500 Rwandan activists, journalists, political opponents, foreign politicians, and diplomats have been selected as targets for NSO spyware,” said Amnesty’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard.
“NSO Group must immediately stop selling its equipment to countries with a track record of putting human right defenders and journalists under unlawful surveillance.”
Among those whose phone was infected with spyware was Carine Kanimba, daughter of Paul Rusesabagina of Hotel Rwanda fame. Rusesabagina is a Belgian national widely credited with saving more than 1,000 people in the Rwandan genocide.
He became a vocal critic of Kagame and was living in the US and Belgium until his arrest by the Rwandan government last year. He is facing life in prison after being accused of terror-related charges, including murder and staging attacks in Rwanda.
The 67-year-old’s family staunchly deny the allegations.
Carine is a U.S.-Belgian citizen who has been leading the effort to free her father after his forced return to Kigali and subsequent arrest by Rwandan authorities.
But a spokesperson for the Rwandan government said the country “does not use this software system … and does not possess this technical capability in any form”.
A phone infected with NSO malware can also turn a mobile phone into a portable tracking and listening device.
South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa’s phone is also said to be infected by the Rwandan government as has high-ranking political and military figures such as Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda, former prime minister of Uganda and Burundian Prime Minister Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni.