Embattled Egyptian NGOs face barrage of electronic espionage

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  • FILE -- This Dec. 7, 2011 photo, shows Hossam Bahgat in his office at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in Garden City, Cairo, Egypt. Egyptian human rights organizations have been under intense pressure at home, targeted with arrests, asset freezes, travel bans and grinding government investigation. But a report published Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, by Citizen Lab, a prominent internet watchdog, said the groups are also under pressure online, targeted by volleys of malicious emails clearly aimed at compromising the data of the groups involved. (Sarah Rafea via AP, File) MANDATORY CREDIT

    FILE -- This Dec. 7, 2011 photo, shows Hossam Bahgat in his office at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in Garden City, Cairo, Egypt. Egyptian human rights organizations have been under intense pressure at home, targeted with arrests, asset ... freezes, travel bans and grinding government investigation. But a report published Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, by Citizen Lab, a prominent internet watchdog, said the groups are also under pressure online, targeted by volleys of malicious emails clearly aimed at compromising the data of the groups involved. (Sarah Rafea via AP, File) MANDATORY CREDIT (The Associated Press)

  • FILE - In this Feb. 21, 2016 file photo, Aida Seif el-Dawla, Suzan Fayyad, center, and Magda Adly, right, co-founder of El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, hold a press conference in Cairo. Egyptian human rights organizations have been under intense pressure at home, targeted with arrests, asset freezes, travel bans and grinding government investigation. But a report published Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, by Citizen Lab, a prominent internet watchdog, said the groups are also under pressure online, targeted by volleys of malicious emails clearly aimed at compromising the data of the groups involved. (AP Photo/Mohamed el Raai, File)

    FILE - In this Feb. 21, 2016 file photo, Aida Seif el-Dawla, Suzan Fayyad, center, and Magda Adly, right, co-founder of El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, hold a press conference in Cairo. Egyptian human rights organizations ... have been under intense pressure at home, targeted with arrests, asset freezes, travel bans and grinding government investigation. But a report published Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, by Citizen Lab, a prominent internet watchdog, said the groups are also under pressure online, targeted by volleys of malicious emails clearly aimed at compromising the data of the groups involved. (AP Photo/Mohamed el Raai, File) (The Associated Press)

  • FILE --In this Sept. 30, 2014 file photo, Mohammed Zaree, the Egyptian Program Manager for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at his office in Cairo, Egypt. Egyptian human rights organizations have been under intense pressure at home, targeted with arrests, asset freezes, travel bans and grinding government investigation. But a report published Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, by Citizen Lab, a prominent internet watchdog, said the groups are also under pressure online, targeted by volleys of malicious emails clearly aimed at compromising the data of the groups involved. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty, File)

    FILE --In this Sept. 30, 2014 file photo, Mohammed Zaree, the Egyptian Program Manager for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at his office in Cairo, Egypt. Egyptian human rights ... organizations have been under intense pressure at home, targeted with arrests, asset freezes, travel bans and grinding government investigation. But a report published Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, by Citizen Lab, a prominent internet watchdog, said the groups are also under pressure online, targeted by volleys of malicious emails clearly aimed at compromising the data of the groups involved. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty, File) (The Associated Press)

Egyptian human rights organizations have been under intense pressure at home, targeted with arrests, asset freezes, travel bans and a grinding, yearslong government investigation.

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But the groups are also under pressure online, targeted by volley after volley of malicious emails, according to a report published Thursday by a prominent internet watchdog.

More than half a dozen groups have been targeted, including the prominent Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a group founded by investigative reporter and rights advocate Hossam Bahgat, according to Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary research group based at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs.

Also targeted was the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, and Nazra for Feminist Studies, according to Citizen Lab. So too were the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression and a seventh, unidentified group.

The emails were disguised as messages about the government's sprawling investigation into the funding of non-governmental organizations, also known as Case No. 173. The emails directed recipients to knockoff websites aimed at harvesting internet passwords.

Citizen Lab said whoever sent the more than 90 malicious emails followed the government's investigation closely. Within hours of lawyer Azza Soliman's arrest at her home in December, for example, several of her NGO colleagues received booby-trapped messages purporting to carry copies of her arrest warrant.

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Citizen Lab said it found snippets of Egyptian slang in the code used to design the malicious websites but stopped short of blaming anyone for the campaign.

An Egyptian Interior Ministry official denied the government was involved, telling The Associated Press that prosecutors had not authorized surveillance in the NGO case. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to address the issue publicly.

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Associated Press writer Heba Afify in Cairo contributed to this report.