Mar 6, 2024 - Technology

Apple, Okta and others help human rights groups fight spyware

Illustration of a body cam with a padlock locking device.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Nearly two dozen human rights organizations have received funding to help crack down on mercenary spyware vendors.

Why it matters: The grantees are organizations who are usually the first to uncover private dealings between secretive spyware vendors and governments looking to surveil journalists, dissidents and politicians.

Zoom in: The Ford Foundation's Dignity and Justice Fund awarded more than $4 million on Wednesday to roughly two dozen organizations focused on fighting mercenary spyware.

  • Organizations are pursuing a range of initiatives already, including news investigations to unmask spyware vendors and establishing programs to train lawyers on how to sue mercenary spyware vendors.
  • The grants focused on international advocacy and litigation, investigations and research and focusing on regulations that limit how much governments can use spyware, especially in the global south.

How it works: The Ford Foundation operates and advises the Dignity and Justice Fund on where the grants should go, but corporate donations are funneled through the New Venture Fund since the Ford Foundation typically doesn't accept outside funding.

  • Apple, Okta, Craig Newmark Philanthropies and Open Society Foundations have each provided money to the spyware grant program.
  • Funders do not get a say in how the money is allocated, Michael Brennan, senior program officer of technology and society at the Ford Foundation, told Axios.

This year's recipients include Citizen Lab, Access Now, Amnesty Tech, Data Privacy Brasil, Pakistan-based Digital Rights Foundation, Mexico-based SocialTIC and several others.

  • Some organizations did not want to be publicly acknowledged so they could avoid further attacks and targeting.

Catch up quick: Apple provided the first contribution to the fund as part of its own broader initiative to counteract spyware abuses.

  • The company first announced a $10 million donation for these grants back in 2021, alongside its lawsuit against Israeli spyware vendor NSO Group.

The big picture: Journalists and security researchers have become prime spyware targets for governments looking to stop their investigations.

Between the lines: Half of the grant recipients are organizations working to build out counter-spyware initiatives in the Southern Hemisphere.

  • "Because it's the Global South that is largely the space where these tools are deployed and doing the most active harm, we want to strengthen the organizations that are responding in those regions," Brennan said.

What's next: The Dignity and Justice Fund's Spyware Accountability Initiative is set up to run for at least the next five years, and the fund's operators are planning to start accepting new applications for additional grants later this spring.

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