A new Amnesty International investigation has found a wave of digital attacks that likely originated from government-backed bodies starting from early January 2019 and involving multiple attempts to gain access to the email accounts of several prominent Egyptian human rights defenders, media and civil society organizations’ staff. The attacks appear to be part of a wider strategy, occurring amid an unprecedented crackdown on the same groups in what have turned Egypt into an “open-air” prison for critics. Because of the identities of the targets we have identified, the timing of these attacks, their apparent coordination and the notifications of state-sponsored attacks sent from Google, we conclude that these attacks were most likely carried out by, or on behalf of, the Egyptian authorities.
In recent years, the Egyptian authorities have been harassing civil society and undermining freedom of association and expression through an ongoing criminal investigation into NGOs and a repressive NGO law. The authorities have been investigating dozens of human rights defenders and NGO staff for “receiving foreign funding”. Many of them could face prison if convicted. The investigative judges have also ordered a travel ban against at least 31 NGO staff, and asset freezes of 10 individuals and seven organizations. Meanwhile, the authorities have also closed El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and continue to detain human rights defenders Ezzat Ghoniem and Hisham Gaafar, directors of the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms and Mada for media studies, respectively.
The list of individuals and organizations targeted in this campaign of phishing attacks has significant overlaps with those targeted in an older phishing attack wave, known as Nile Phish, disclosed in 2017 by the Citizen Lab and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
Amnesty International is deeply concerned that these phishing attacks represent yet another attempt by the authorities to stifle Egyptian civil society and calls on the Egyptian authorities to end these attacks on human rights defenders, and the crackdown on civil society, including by dropping the foreign funding case and repealing the NGO law.