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Spies hack into phones of US Embassy officials in Uganda

State Minister for Foreign Affairs Henry Oryem Okello during the interview on December 4, 2021. PHOTO/STEPHEN OTAGE

What you need to know:

  • The government of Ugandan says the US government is better placed to explain the first known case of the Pegasus spyware being used against American officials.

Allegations that several individuals in Uganda have been targeted with hacks using spyware developed by the Israel-based NSO Group have gained momentum following revelations that iPhones of up to 11 employees of the US Embassy in Kampala were hacked into. 
News of the hacking has been widely reported across global mainstream media, including by Al-Jazeera, Times of Israel, Reuters News agency, The New York Times, and The Guardian newspaper of UK. 
But the Ugandan government has said the United States government would be better placed to explain the first known case of the Pegasus spyware being used against American officials. 
No accusation has been levied against Uganda where the American officials are domiciled.

“First of all, the United States government has very sophisticated equipment and facilities and if it is true that the phones of their officials have been hacked into, then they should be able to tell for certain, without doubt, that for instance, the government of Uganda hacked their phones,” State Minister for Foreign Affairs in-charge of International Co-operation Henry Oryem Okello says.
“The United States have hundreds of satellites up there, they have got listening stations, they have the embassy here, they have so much listening equipment in the AFRICOM [US Africa Command]. If they make any allegations … it should be precise.” 

Several reports indicate that the technology supplied by the NSO group, which was recently placed on a US blacklist, was used to target up to 11 State Department officials in the recent months.
US tech giant Apple, which manufactures iPhones, has also launched a lawsuit against NSO after reports of Apple alerting victims around the world who had been compromised by the hacking tool. The targeted individuals, according to the media reports, were either based in Uganda or focused on matters concerning the country. 
Reuters, the news agency which first published the report, said it could not determine which NSO client was behind the attack.
Once Pegasus, NSO’s intrusive spyware is successfully launched, it can hack into a mobile phone and intercept all communications, including encrypted messages. It can also turn any phone into a listening device, because once infected, a user of Pegasus can remotely control a mobile phone’s recorder and camera, according to the United Kingdom-based newspaper, The Guardian. 

Uganda-US relations
The United States has enjoyed diplomatic relations with Uganda that spans over 30 years but the same were, recently, strained following allegations that some US officials and diplomats were encouraging dissent in the country after the election in which President Museveni was declared winner of his sixth term in office amid allegations of election malpractice by the Opposition.
The US Mission in Kampala comprises several offices and organisations all working under the auspices of the embassy and at the direction of the ambassador. Among the offices operating under the US Mission to Uganda include United States Department of State, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Peace Corps, the National Institute of Health (NIH), the Department of Defense (DOD), and PEPFAR.

Some of the key US Mission leaders in Kampala include Ambassador Natalie E. Brown, and Deputy Chief of Mission Christopher Krafft.
Sunday Monitor could not immediately establish who of the key officials in these organisations in Kampala was targeted.
Ms Dorothy Nanyonga, the Information Assistant at the US Mission in Kampala, in a response, said they had received the Sunday Monitor queries, and they would get back to the publication “with an official response.”
However, she had not got back to this publication by press time.

Previous cases

Ahead of the 2016 General Election, government procured the services of a UK-based firm, Gamma Group, which delivered a surveillance technology reportedly used to spy on President Museveni’s opponents in an operation dubbed “Fungua Macho”.

A Wall Street Journal investigation in 2019 revealed that the Ugandan government used assistance from China’s telecom giant Huawei to hack into messages for former presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, in the lead up to his arrest. 
Early this year, the regime in neigbouring Rwanda was accused of procuring the same technology to wiretap various phone conversations of Uganda’s top officials, including former Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda. 
The report allegedly published by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) indicated that the spyware was also used to monitor phone conversations of director-general of External Security Organisation (ESO) Joseph Ocwet, former Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa, among others.

“You remember the initial claim that Ugandan officials were targeted by Rwanda who were using this equipment and our position was that any government official who uses his or her phone to discuss government private classified information is an irresponsible officer and hence if their phones are hacked and classified information is leaked, that officer should be held accountable,” Mr Oryem said. 
He dismissed the allegations of the latest hack as false, suggesting that there could be a conspiracy against the Ugandan government. 
 “It is strange that all of a sudden, in the last two weeks, there are all associations emerging against the government of Uganda. First, the story that China has taken over our airport, which was fake, misleading and not true in fact. The coincidence of that story with the US government launching its similar project to counter the Chinese investment in Africa was very, very interesting to some of us,” he said. 
On whether Uganda should be concerned, Mr Oryem says:  “No, it shouldn’t just like we are not bothered when the news came that Rwandans were hacking into our phones because they will get nothing. I don’t discuss classified information on my phone, all members of the Cabinet have been informed and directed by security and the President not to discuss classified information on their phones.” 

On whether Uganda has procured the technology, Mr Oryem Okello said: “To the best of my knowledge, we have not procured that equipment and if we had, I am sure and you should be sure that there are more important people whose phones we could hack into and make sure we deal with them than the US officials.”