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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

An announcement this week by a major spyware vendor that it aims to embrace human rights is forcing the industry, governments and civil society groups to consider whether the concepts of "human rights" and "spyware" can ever be reconciled.

The big picture: Government-grade spyware has always been abused. In June, David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, determined that commercial spyware had become so vast a problem that the world needs a moratorium on it, for companies and governments to figure out how to protect human rights.

  • Spyware from NSO Group, the Israel-based firm that announced the human rights initiative, was allegedly used by Saudi Arabia to spy on U.S.-based reporter Jamal Khashoggi, who was later killed by Saudi agents. Mexico also used NSO spyware to surveil government employees and researchers who backed a tax on soda.
  • But even well before NSO group became a major spyware player, other products — including Gamma's FinFisher and Hacking Team's Da Vinci and Galileo products — have been embroiled in human rights debates. Ethiopia allegedly used spyware to surveil journalists, Uganda allegedly targeted opposition political figures, and Morocco allegedly targeted activists.
  • Many other clients of spyware vendors have poor human rights records, including Azerbaijan, Venezuela, Uzbekistan and Sudan.

Yes, but: It's tough to prevent abuse without oversight. Spyware vendors are loath to surveil their own clients, meaning that reporting about potential human rights abuses either comes from victims lucky enough to figure out they were being watched or from the countries themselves.

  • "If they don't have a mechanism of looking over governments’ shoulders, I don’t see how this has any teeth," John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, which has done much of the research on NSO's alleged human rights abuses, told Axios.
  • Without that oversight, Scott-Railton isn't confident that any spyware could be safe for human rights. "If the question is, 'Is it possible to sell cyber weapons and assure they won’t be used for abuse,' I think it’s a contradiction in terms," he said.

Amnesty International has been a persistent thorn in NSO's side, even assisting a lawsuit to force Israel to ban NSO from exporting products. But Amnesty deputy program director Danna Ingleton is optimistic that there is a way for spyware companies to align with human rights.

  • "I think it must be possible," she said.
  • That doesn't mean NSO's current plan passed Ingleton's muster, yet (see item 2). But through due diligence before making sales to regimes, honest accounting of past actions, export rules that are more transparent and engagement with civil society groups, she believes a company like NSO could get ahead of the human rights issue.
  • NSO would have to be more open about its internal capabilities to flag human rights abuses as they happen. And governments would need to take an active role in restricting sales to dangerous countries.
  • "The onus is on the companies. If they can't protect human rights, they need to enact safeguards," she said. "And if it's an industry that can never be in line with human rights, it's up to the state to do what it needs to do."

The bottom line: The commercial spyware industry is not going to vanish — it's too ingrained in global intelligence and law enforcement. That might mean the only way to protect human rights is to adopt rules like those NSO has announced and make them work.

Go deeper

2 hours ago - World

Special report: Trump's U.S.-China transformation

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump began his term by launching the trade war with China he had promised on the campaign trail. By mid-2020, however, Trump was no longer the public face of China policy-making as he became increasingly consumed with domestic troubles, giving his top aides carte blanche to pursue a cascade of tough-on-China policies.

Why it matters: Trump alone did not reshape the China relationship. But his trade war shattered global norms, paving the way for administration officials to pursue policies that just a few years earlier would have been unthinkable.

McConnell: Trump "provoked" Capitol mob

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Tuesday that the pro-Trump mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was "provoked by the president and other powerful people."

Why it matters: Trump was impeached by the House last week for "incitement of insurrection." McConnell has not said how he will vote in Trump's coming Senate impeachment trial, but sources told Axios' Mike Allen that the chances of him voting to convict are higher than 50%.

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

GOP leaders skip Trump sendoff in favor of church with Biden

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in July. Photo by Erin Scott-Pool/Getty Images

Congressional leaders, including House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, will skip President Trump's departure ceremony in Maryland tomorrow morning in favor of attending mass with incoming President Joe Biden ahead of his inauguration, congressional sources familiar with their plans tell Axios.

Why it matters: Their decision is a clear sign of unity before Biden takes the oath of office.