Digital attacks against human rights defenders, journalists and civil society are on the rise. Their digital devices are hacked they can be spied on, silenced, and intimidated. This must stop.
In many countries it is dangerous and risky to speak out for human rights and expose the truth. Governments often intimidate, harass and arrest people – and increasingly rely on digital surveillance to do it. Governments across the world are buying and allowing the sale of sophisticated and intrusive surveillance technology that can compromise anybody’s digital devices and monitor their activity. These tools are made and sold by private companies who are sometimes making profits off human right abuses.
Governments and companies say that these surveillance tools are only used to target ‘criminals and terrorists’. But in reality, human rights defenders, journalists and many others across the world – including an Amnesty International staff member – have been unlawfully targeted with spyware.
In July 2021, Forbidden Stories along with 17 media outlets around the world and the technical support of Amnesty International released a major investigation into the leak of 50,000 phone numbers of activists, lawyers, journalists and even world leaders, that had been selected as persons of interest by NSO client states, exposing possible targeting of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware in at least 11 countries: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Togo, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Pegasus is a tool that has already been repeatedly exposed previously as having been used to unlawfully targeted human rights defenders. Since the Pegasus Project revelations began to surface, Amnesty International has confirmed a significant number of additional cases where civil society were indeed unlawfully targeted and, in some cases, hacked. With every passing day, more cases are being confirmed.
States around the world have so far looked the other way and allowed the export of surveillance technology to governments that have a track record of using spyware to violate human rights. The recent Pegasus Project revelations further proves that these violations can no longer be ignored. There must be a reckoning for these governments and for the spyware companies like NSO Group that facilitate these abuses.
Exports of surveillance technology to governments that unlawfully use these tools must stop.
UN Experts and civil society organisations have called for a global moratorium – a halt on the sale, transfer, and use of surveillance technology – until there is a proper human rights regulatory framework in place that protects human rights defenders and civil society from the misuse of these tools.