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Rwandan Activist's Phone Infected by Spyware Targeting at Least 50,000 Phones


During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, a hotel manager named Paul Rusesabagina saved more than a thousand people by hiding them while he negotiated with killers just outside the doors. "Hotel Rwanda," a Hollywood movie based on his life, made him an international hero. Over time, he became a critic of the Rwandan government, calling President Paul Kagame a dictator. And then, about a year ago, Rwandan authorities arrested Rusesabagina and charged him with terrorism. His daughter, Carine Kanimba, has been fighting to get him out of prison. And she recently learned that her phone was one of about 50,000 infected by spyware that's licensed by an Israeli company, NSO. The Rwandan government denies having anything to do with it. I talked to Carine Kanimba earlier this week.

The rest of the world learned about this spyware because of forensic analysis by the Pegasus Project, which is a group of news outlets that investigated this Israeli company, NSO. But how did you learn that your own phone was infected?

CARINE KANIMBA: So we've had suspicions for many months now because my father, Paul Rusesabagina, was kidnapped last August. He was kidnapped while traveling through Dubai on his way to Burundi by the Rwandan government and taken to Rwanda forcefully. In late April, I was approached by one of the collectives of journalists from Forbidden Stories that partnered with Amnesty International Security Lab to investigate Pegasus. They had some suspicions that my phone might be hacked, I might be surveilled. And so I needed to have a lot of trust in order to be able to hand it to them for them to do the backups and copies of my phone to actually look for the Pegasus software. But once they did and they discovered that, in fact, my phone was infected, we confirmed the suspicions we already had.

KING: And how did you feel understanding that someone out there has your pictures, your text messages, your location at various times? What goes through your head?

KANIMBA: It's very frightening to know that they have this much access to my privacy, to - this is an invasion of privacy. But also, all of my communications with my lawyers, with my father's lawyers, with our team and our campaign to free him have been read and intercepted by the Rwandan government. Not only that, but also my communication with the Belgium minister of foreign affairs - the forensics team confirmed that throughout my entire meeting, the Pegasus software was active in my phone.

KING: Carine, do you think that the presence of this spyware on your phone suggests that you are in any physical danger?

KANIMBA: Besides the spyware, throughout the past eight months I've had very strange things happen to me where, while I was walking to an interview at the Standard Journal here in Belgium, my friend and I noticed three people who looked like Rwandan officials walking after us, following us. We were afraid, of course, and walked really quickly, but had no way to confirm who they were. We did not get any close. But we did notice that they were following us. I am very scared, to be frank with you, because not only do they have access to my entire life - my phone conversations, my emails, my photos, my calendar - but they also have access to my location. And so that means that they can physically hurt me. This will not intimidate us into stopping the campaign that we're leading to free my father because he's innocent.

KING: You say you won't be intimidated, but when you learned that someone out there has access to your calendar, your pictures, your emails, did any of that change what you've done over the past few weeks?

KANIMBA: Yes. I've had to change my entire methods of communication. I have to be careful about who I give my number to, of course, as I always had been, but this - different level. I've had to use new phones. And figuring out these new phones isn't easy either. And so this has disturbed my everyday activities quite a bit. But the way that I see this is that - if you're familiar with authoritarianism and dictatorship, is that - especially with the Rwandan dictatorship, is that there is a lot of work to manipulate or psychologically manipulate the individuals, either through propaganda, through threats, through menaces - all of these ways to try to silence critics, silence journalists, silence activists through these types of intimidation. But again, my goal and my family's goal and our entire team is to get my father home safely. And we will not stop, whether they are watching, listening to me or not.

KING: Carine Kanimba is the daughter of Paul Rusesabagina. Thank you so much, Carine, for taking the time today. We appreciate it.

KANIMBA: Thank you very much.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this audio, we incorrectly say 50,000 phones were infected by spyware licensed by Israeli company NSO. The 50,000 were targeted but not necessarily infected.]

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBINATE'S "LANTERN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 22, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this audio, we incorrectly say 50,000 phones were infected by spyware licensed by Israeli company NSO. The 50,000 were targeted but not necessarily infected. In addition, a previous headline incorrectly said 150,000 phones were affected.