Dozens of Egyptian activists, rights defenders and journalists have been targeted by digital phishing attacks in the last two months, likely by their own government, an international rights group said Wednesday.
Amnesty International said it analyzed dozens of suspicious emails and the attacks appear “to be part of a sustained campaign to intimidate and silence critics” of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s government.
The London-based group said the phishing attacks spiked during key political moments, such as the run-up to the January anniversary of Egypt’s 2011 uprising against autocratic President Hosni Mubarak, and a visit later that month by French President Emmanuel Macron.
“These chilling attempts to target them online pose yet another threat to their vital work,” Ramy Raoof, a technology specialist at Amnesty, said about the scams on activists, journalists and non-governmental organizations. “There are strong indications that the Egyptian authorities are behind these attacks.”
Phishing attacks attempt to trick people into sharing sensitive information such as passwords and usernames, often by inducing them to click on a bogus link or by pretending to be a trusted entity.
Egypt under el-Sissi has waged a massive crackdown on dissent in recent years, rolling back freedoms won by the 2011 uprising and placing draconian restrictions on demonstrations and the work of rights groups.
A government spokesman was not immediately available to comment, and no one answered phone calls to the Interior Ministry.
Amnesty said the emails were sent between Jan. 18 and Feb. 13 using a technique known as OAuth Phishing to gain access to private accounts.
The group recorded 11 phishing attacks against NGOs and media outlets ahead of the Jan. 25 uprising anniversary. Another burst of attacks came during Macron’s visit, peaking on Jan. 29, the day he met with several Egyptian human rights defenders, Amnesty said.
Ahead of the January meeting, Macron said the latest crackdown is widely seen as more severe than any launched under Mubarak, who was toppled in the 2011 uprising, and that people “who do not threaten the regime’s stability” have been jailed.
The French president said he encouraged respect for human rights, saying that Egypt’s success was important for the world given its size, location and military capabilities, but that free expression was one of the best safeguards against extremism.
Rights lawyer Gamal Eid met with the French president on his visit. He said he raised the phishing issue in their meeting, claiming the Egyptian government uses technologies provided by France.
“The attacks have been persistent. They target our emails and social media accounts in order to get material they think they will use against us,” he said.
The group said several media organizations were targeted in the first week of February. Many of them were reporting on the recent process to amend the country’s constitution and extend presidential terms in office, allowing el-Sissi to stay in power possibly until 2034.
Egypt’s Parliament, packed by el-Sissi supporters, voted overwhelmingly in favor of the package of constitutional amendments on Feb. 14. The changes must be finalized by a special legislative committee for a decision within two months, followed by a nationwide referendum, likely before early May.