Togolese bishop, supportive of political reform, targeted by spyware

Pope Francis received in audience Togolese president Faure Gnassingbe at the Vatican April 29 2019 Credit Vatican Media Pope Francis receives in audience Togolese president Faure Gnassingbé at the Vatican, April 29, 2019. | Vatican Media.

Researchers based at the University of Toronto announced Monday that Bishop Benoît Alowonou of Kpalimé was among six targets of spyware in Togo last year. The country's bishops have supported political reform and denounced the government's injustice.

The spyware, known as Pegasus and which targets WhatsApp users, was made by NSO Group, an Israeli technology firm. It gives its operator access to the target's mobile device.

Since 2005, Faure Gnassingbé has been president of Togo. His father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, had ruled the country after a 1967 coup until his death in 2005.

Bishop Alowonou is president of the Togolese bishops' conference, which in 2017 urged constitutional reform, and earlier this year decried the violent arrest of an opposition leader.

In May 2019 WhatsApp found that spyware from NSO Group could be injected on mobiles phones with a missed video call on the app. Some 1,400 of its users were targeted.

Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary lab based at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, said Aug. 3 that it "volunteered to assist WhatsApp to investigate the 2019 Incident as part of the Citizen Lab's mandate to study digital threats against civil society."

"During our investigation we identified multiple targets in Togo. These individuals were targeted between April and May, 2019 … We believe the infection attempts would have led to the infection of most targeted devices with NSO's spyware," Citizen Lab wrote.

In addition to Bishop Alowonou, Togolese targets of the spyware included Fr. Pierre Affognon, chaplain of the Association of Catholic Leaders of Togo; Elliott Ohin, a former government minister and an opposition leader; and Raymond Houndjo, a prominent member of the National Alliance for Change, an opposition party.

Fr. Affognon's group had in late 2018 called for democratic reforms and organized protest marches that were barred by the government.

Bishop Alowonou told The Guardian that Pegasus' use against dissidents in Togo is "dangerous for our freedoms and for democracy", while Fr. Affognon said, "it's a violation of the liberty of the citizens."

According to Citizen Lab, the sole operator of Pegasus in Togo "appeared to be spying only in Togo," and so it suspects it "was operated by an agency of the Togolese Government."

Nevertheless, John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, told The Guardian that "Citizen Lab is not conclusively stating which government is responsible for this attack. But the fact that these individuals are all either opposition party members or otherwise critical of the government is troubling."

In October 2019 WhatsApp filed a lawsuit in the US against NSO Group , claiming it enabled the Pegasus attacks on its 1,400 users.

Pegasus is marketed to governments for crime fighting, but according to Citizen Lab "there are over 130 cases in which NSO Group's hacking technology has been used to conduct abusive surveillance against civil society around the globe," including journalists and human rights advocates.

NSO Group dispute's WhatsApp's claims.

In an Oct. 29, 2019 statement, it said that "the sole purpose of NSO is to provide technology to licensed government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to help them fight terrorism and serious crime. Our technology is not designed or licensed for use against human rights activists and journalists … We consider any other use of our products than to prevent serious crime and terrorism a misuse, which is contractually prohibited. We take action if we detect any misuse."

There are allegations that Pegasus was used by Saudi officials to monitor Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist assassinated at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

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Togo has seen political instability and widespread poverty in recent years. Protests in 2017 called for Gnassingbé's resignation, and resulted in harsh crackdowns.

Gnassingbé won re-election for his fourth term in a February 2020 election, with more than 70% of the vote.

Opposition leaders asserted there was widespread fraud on the part of the authorities.

The Archbishop Emeritus of Lomé, Philippe Kpodzro, was briefly placed under house arrest in March for encouraging protests following the election.

In 2019 Gnassingbé secured constitutional changes to term limits that allow him to be able to remain in office until 2030.

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