Collaboration with the Global Legal Action Network puts NSO, UAE and Saudi Arabia on formal notice of intended hacking claim
Three UK-based civil society leaders and human rights activists have set in motion legal action arising from the hacking of their mobile phones by foreign states using potent spyware known as ‘Pegasus’.
Pegasus spyware is made by the Israeli technology company NSO Group Technologies Ltd, and has been sold under licence to a number of foreign governments. The claimants are proposing to sue both NSO Group and the states who it is alleged used the Pegasus spyware against them.
The claimants are alleging that their mobile phones have been hacked by Pegasus spyware whilst they were in the United Kingdom. This was an invasion of their privacy rights, and therefore they are seeking to bring breach of privacy claims against the defendants in the High Court of England and Wales.
The three claimants are part of a larger group of activists, academics, politicians and other prominent figures. Bindmans led a six-month investigation on their behalf, in partnership with the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN).
Forensics imaging and analysis is being carried out by technology experts at Reckon Digital (London) and by Dr Bill Marczak of Citizen Lab and UC Berkeley (California). Pre-litigation funding was provided by crowdfunding and the Digital Freedom Fund. Further potential claims are to follow.
The claimants sent a pre-action letter to the potential defendants to these claims on 23 February 2022. The claimants are:
- Anas Altikriti, who is the founder and CEO of The Cordoba Foundation, a prominent political advisor and commentator, and a hostage negotiator. It is alleged that he was hacked using the Pegasus spyware in 2020 by the United Arab Emirates.
- Mohammed Kozbar, who is the current Chairman of the Finsbury Park Mosque. He is publicly renowned for reforming and leading the Finsbury Park Mosque since it was re-opened in 2005 under new leadership. It is alleged that he was hacked using the Pegasus spyware in 2018 by the United Arab Emirates.
- Yahya Assiri, who is the former Secretary General of the National Assembly Party (NAAS), a pro-democracy opposition party of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, most of whose members are in exile. He is also the founder of ALQST for Human Rights, an NGO which tackles human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, and Diwan London, a discussion hub focused on the Arabian Peninsula and aimed at consolidating the values of justice and freedom. It is alleged that he was hacked using the Pegasus spyware in 2020 by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
NSO formally responded to the pre-action letters on 1 April 2022. There has been no response received by Bindmans to date from either the UAE or Saudi Arabia.
The use of the Pegasus spyware by rogue states to target their political opponents has been reported on by the media, including The Guardian and The Washington Post, and Members of Parliament in the UK have written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ask him to follow the lead of the United States in blacklisting NSO Group.
Monika Sobiecki, Data Protection and Cybersecurity barrister, and partner at Bindmans LLP, who is representing the claimants, said:
At the end of a painstaking legal and forensic investigation in collaboration with our partners at GLAN, Matrix Chambers, “Orange” of Reckon Digital and Bill Marczak, we are now able to pursue justice for the individuals who were affected by the Pegasus spyware scandal.
Siobhán Allen, legal officer with GLAN and consultant solicitor with Bindmans LLP, said:
The use of Pegasus spyware against these human rights defenders has made their work even more dangerous. It is important to pursue judicial recognition that this should not have happened.
Anas Altikriti, founder and CEO of The Cordoba Foundation, said:
It’s bad enough to realise that my device was hacked and that I was spied upon, but to realise that the party responsible for such a heinous intrusion on my privacy was a foreign authoritarian government accused of gross human rights abuses and violations, is simply horrendous. If nothing else, one’s privacy is sacrosanct, particularly when engaged in work that affects the lives of others, and the UAE government violated that leaving me to wonder who and how others were impacted as a result.
Mohammed Kozbar, Chairman of the Finsbury Park Mosque, said:
These brutal, authoritarian regimes know they are on the wrong side of every basic human rights standard, which is why they are taking the desperate and aggressive measure of launching cross-border spying attacks against peaceful campaigners. NSO Group has shamelessly profited from this oppressive practice, which makes them no better than their dictator customers. It is vital that they should be held accountable.
Yahya Assiri, former Secretary General of the NAAS Party, said:
The fight continues, with justice and rights on the one side and unjust, abusive dictators on the other. The abusers will not leave us to defend justice and rights without attacking us by any means – they will use everything, legal or illegal, to stop us and protect their interests, and now everyone can see and understand the reality. We are very optimistic and we believe that the judicial system will stand with us. Yes they spy on us, have arrested our friends and tortured and killed some of them, but we believe that the side of justice and rights will prevail in the end.
The claimants are represented by Monika Sobiecki, Tamsin Allen and Tayab Ali of Bindmans LLP, together with Siobhán Allen and Dearbhla Minogue of GLAN.
Richard Hermer QC, Ben Silverstone and Darryl Hutcheon of Matrix Chambers are instructed as Counsel.
“Orange” of Reckon Digital and Bill Marczak (Senior Research Fellow at Citizen Lab) are providing digital imaging and forensics support.
For more information, visit www.thepegasusfiles.com.
Bindmans is seeking to crowdfund the case using CrowdJustice, a community fundraising platform. To find out more about the case, or to support the claimants to this challenge, visit the CrowdJustice fundraising page here.