May 25, 2022 - Technology

Human rights activists seek moratorium on spyware

Photo: Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images

A coalition of human rights groups called Wednesday for a moratorium on the use of spyware, saying that tools such as NSO Group's Pegasus threaten democracy itself by allowing the monitoring and suppression of political dissent.

Driving the news: "Spyware kills. Spyware silences. Spyware imprisons." Amnesty international Secretary General Agnes Callamard said in a press conference on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos. "Spyware is the tool of autocracy."

Details:

  • Amnesty International was joined by Access Now, Human Rights Watch, the UN and other groups in calling for a moratorium until a process is in place to ensure that commercial spyware is not used in ways that suppress human rights.
  • The call follows a December article in the Washington Post detailing how Pegasus was used to, among other things, spy on a U.S. diplomat in Kenya. The Biden administration has placed NSO on a Commerce Department blacklist.

Between the lines: It's not just the direct impact of individuals who are spied on, but also the chilling effect, noted Peggy Hicks, a director in the UN's office of the high commissioner for human rights.

Be smart: It's not just about not talking on the phone, as Human Rights Watch chief Kenneth Roth points out. Sophisticated spyware can activate a phone's camera and microphone, recording conversations and images without a user's knowledge or consent.

  • "One cannot carry on conversations in a world with spyware," Roth said.

Between the lines: Activists called on governments in particular to take action, noting that many governments that have decried the misuse of the technology are also customers, thus funding the industry.

  • Israel, home to NSO, was particularly called out for not regulating the export of such tools and in fact using the ability to purchase NSO's tools as part of their efforts to improve relations with other Middle East states.
  • Roth said that Israel is sacrificing other countries' dissidents in pursuit of its own interests.
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