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Protests in India over Pegasus spying and other corruption

Delhi police use water cannons to disperse Congress workers during a protest march to the Parliament against the BJP-led central government policies like the farm laws, Pegasus snooping row, unemployment, inflation, and the handling of the pandemic among other issues on August 5, 2021 in New Delhi, India. (Photo: Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

After Pegasus Exposé, UN Rights Experts Urge Moratorium on 'Life-Threatening' Spyware

"It is highly dangerous and irresponsible to allow the surveillance technology and trade sector to operate as a human rights-free zone."

Jessica Corbett

Echoing calls from advocacy organizations and other surveillance critics after the Pegasus exposé broke last month, a group of United Nations human rights experts on Thursday called for a global moratorium on the sale and transfer of surveillance technology.

"International human rights law requires all states to adopt robust domestic legal safeguards to protect individuals from unlawful surveillance, invasion of their privacy, or threats to their freedom of expression, assembly, and association."
—U.N. experts

In mid-July, a media consortium led by Forbidden Stories, with the technical support of Amnesty International, revealed that the Israeli firm NSO Group's Pegasus spyware has been used to target activists, journalists, and politicians worldwide—sparking moratorium demands.

Three United Nations special rapporteurs—Irene Khan, Mary Lawlor, and Clement Nyaletsossi Voulé—along with a U.N. working group focused on business and human rights, joined that chorus with a long statement on the "life-threatening" technology.

"It is highly dangerous and irresponsible to allow the surveillance technology and trade sector to operate as a human rights-free zone," the U.N. experts warned.

"We are deeply concerned that highly sophisticated intrusive tools are being used to monitor, intimidate, and silence human rights defenders, journalists, and political opponents," they said. "Such practices violate the rights to freedom of expression, privacy, and liberty, possibly endanger the lives of hundreds of individuals, imperil media freedom, and undermine democracy, peace, security, and international cooperation."

Their statement highlighted a 2019 U.N. report in which another human rights expert urged such a moratorium until countries enact human rights protections—as well as the international community's failure to heed that call.

In its initial responses to the Pegasus Project investigation, NSO Group pushed back, telling the consortium that it "firmly denies false claims made in your report which many of them are uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability of your sources, as well as the basis of your story."

By late July, an unnamed source within the NSO Group told NPR that "there is an investigation into some clients. Some of those clients have been temporarily suspended." However, the source did not share which or how many of the company's clients—intelligence agencies, law enforcement bodies, and militaries—were blocked from using the spyware.

The U.N. experts said that they have been in direct contact with both NSO Group and the Israeli government regarding the reporting.

"Given the extraordinary audacity and contempt for human rights that such widespread surveillance shows," they said, "if the denial of collusion by the NSO Group is to have any credibility at all, the company must disclose whether or not it ever conducted any meaningful human rights due diligence in line [with] the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and publish fully the findings of any internal probes it may have undertaken on this issue."

The experts also called on Israel "to disclose fully what measures it took to review NSO export transactions in light of its own human rights obligations," adding that "it is the duty of states to verify that companies like the NSO Group do not sell or transfer technology to or contract with states and entities that are like to use them to violate human rights."

"In recent years we have repeatedly raised the alarm about the danger that surveillance technology poses to human rights," the experts said. "Once again, we urge the international community to develop a robust regulatory framework to prevent, mitigate, and redress the negative human rights impact of surveillance technology and pending that, to adopt a moratorium on its sale and transfer."

"International human rights law," they noted, "requires all states to adopt robust domestic legal safeguards to protect individuals from unlawful surveillance, invasion of their privacy, or threats to their freedom of expression, assembly, and association."

Other advocates for an immediate moratorium on the export, sale, transfer, and use of such surveillance technology include Amnesty International secretary general Agnès Callamard and exiled American whistleblower Edward Snowden, who went even further.

"This is an industry that should not exist," Snowden told The Guardian last month. "The NSO Group is only one company of many—and if one company smells this bad, what's happening with all the others?"

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