UN human rights experts call for spyware crackdown
Image credit: REUTERS/Marton Monus
The UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner has this week called on governments to pause the sale and transfer of surveillance technology, including spyware, until rules can be agreed upon to govern their use and prevent human rights infringements.
The comments came following reports of the use of military-grade Pegasus spyware from Israel-based NSO Group. The spyware can be covertly installed on phones running most versions of iOS and Android OS, after which vast amounts of information can be harvested from the device including private messages.
Alarmingly, it can also be used to activate and record using a device’s microphone and camera. In August 2020, Israeli media reported that the software had been sold for hundreds of millions of dollars to the UAE and other Gulf States for surveillance of critical politicians, journalists, and activists.
Last month, it was revealed that Pegasus is still being used widely to monitor and intimidate human rights supporters and political dissidents.
International human rights law requires countries to ensure protections against illegal surveillance, invasion of privacy, and threats to fundamental civil liberties such as freedom of expression and assembly.
The eight experts “called on all states to impose a global moratorium on the sale and transfer of surveillance technology until they have put in place robust regulations that guarantee its use in compliance with international human rights standards.”
They cited the “extraordinary audacity and contempt for human rights” shown by users of Pegasus spyware. They described its use as “extremely alarming” and said that it confirms “some of the worst fears” surrounding misuse of such technology.
High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet said in a statement: “Various parts of the UN Human Rights system, including my own office, have repeatedly raised serious concerns about the dangers of authorities using surveillance tools from a variety of sources supposed to promote public safety in order to hack the phones and computers of people conducting legitimate journalistic activities, monitoring human rights or expressing dissent or political opposition.”
If the most recent reports are true, Bachelet said, the “red line has been crossed again and again with total impunity”.
The group demanded that NSO Group – which states that Pegasus is only for use against criminal groups, such as terrorist cells – reveal whether it had assessed the human rights implications of such tools and publish any assessments into the matter. They reminded governments that these tools can only be justified in narrowly defined circumstances where necessary and proportional to a legitimate goal, such as to investigate “grave security threats”. The group of human rights experts say that they are in direct contact with NSO Group and the Israeli government.
Bachelet said that governments should not only refrain from using these technologies in ways that violate human rights, but also “take concrete actions” to protect against such invasions of privacy through regulation of the “distribution, use, and export of surveillance technology” created by third parties.
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