Spyware Trade: A Blow To Digital Rights

Whilst the rise of globalization has shored up development, it’s not without its limitations. Surveillance technologies are being used to crack down on independent journalists, as well as to surveil head of states. If  power players fail protect themselves from surveillance, what about the ordinary citizens?

Earlier this week, Forbidden Stories, a non-profit organization, along with Amnesty International, a human rights group, shared with 17 news organizations a list of potential targets of Pegasus, spyware developed by the Israeli cyber arms firm, NSO Group.

The phone of French President Emmanuel Macron may have been hacked or targeted, according to new investigations. Among the South African and French presidents, the Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly is said to be one of the potential targets.

“We have long known that activists and journalists are targets of this surreptitious phone-hacking – but it’s clear that even those at the highest levels of power cannot escape the sinister spread of NSO’s spyware,” Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary-General said.

Yet, the problem is that spyware purchases are no longer confined to wealthy countries, but developing ones too. Frankly, it’s everywhere. On Sunday, it emerged that governments in at least 10 countries had used the spyware tool to surveil journalists and dissidents, according to Foreign Policy.

Nonetheless, the company has denied the investigative consortium’s allegation, calling them “so outrageous and far from reality”.

Edward Joseph Snowden, a former computer intelligence consultant who leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency in 2013, called on the global community to halt the spyware trade, or to face a world where all mobile phones are unsafe.

Though companies like NSO are primarily formed to help governments thwart online terrorism, the lack of a “rights-based” approach to spyware trade poses a threat to digital rights.

“Revelations regarding the apparent widespread use of the Pegasus software to spy on journalists, human rights defenders, politicians, and others in a variety of countries are extremely alarming and seem to confirm some of the worst fears about the potential misuse of surveillance technology to illegally undermine people’s human rights,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement.

The so-called democracies are not just turning a blind eye to the illegal use of spyware, but they are also providing export licenses to authoritarian regimes.

NSO represents the tip of the iceberg. Relevant companies, such as Cellebrite, FinFisher, Blue Coat, Hacking Team, CyberPoint, L3 Technologies, Verint, and NSO Group, are headquartered in the most democratic countries in the world, including France, Italy, Israel, and the United States. 

Developed states should adopt a follow up strategy regarding surveillance technology purchases. How countries are going to use it and whether they apply the proportionality principle. Hence, there have been calls to establish a regime to govern the anarchic digital space. Western democracies should develop a strong framework, or temporarily halt export licenses.

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