Togo bishop 'targeted in WhatsApp spyware attack

A prominent Catholic bishop and a priest in Togo are reported to have been targeted by spyware on their mobile phones.

Bishop Benoît Alowonou and five other critics of Togo’s repressive government were alerted by WhatsApp last year that their mobile phones had been targeted with the spying technology.It is not known who carried out the cyber-attack.

WhatsApp announced last year that 1,400 of its users were attacked with the malware, which is made by Israel’s NSO Group, over a two-week period last April.

The Israeli firm that produces the spying software admits it sells the product to governments around the world but says they are supposed to only use it to monitor criminals and terrorists.

Discussing the attack in a recent speech, Will Cathcart, the head of WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, referred to “horrifying examples of journalists, human rights advocates, government officials, religious leaders … being spied on [in] really horrifying ways”.

Togo has been ruled by President Faure Gnassingbé, who has led the country since 2005 following the death of his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who was in power for nearly four decades.

Members of the Roman Catholic church in Togo are among the president’s most strident critics, including Bishop Alowonou, who said he believed he was targeted because of his activism.

Alowonou said he initially assumed the alert he received from WhatsApp, saying he had been targeted, was just a spam message. But once he realised it was genuine, he described the use of spyware against dissidents as “dangerous for our freedoms and for democracy”.

It is not clear if the targeting of the government critics led to successful hacks of their phones, but Citizen Lab has said there is no reason to think the attempts failed.

Togo is one of the most oppressive nations on the continent. The same family has held the presidency since 1967 and dissent is not tolerated.