By Rand Hammoud, Surveillance Campaigner, Access Now
Surveillance technology is weaponry – it targets, tracks, invades, and decimates – and its unbridled use is a far-reaching, destructive violation of human rights. It is an assault rifle in the sustained global offensive on civic space, and we need a global moratorium on its export, sale, transfer, servicing, and use.
When news broke this month of three journalists and human rights activists in Mexico targeted once again by invasive Pegasus spyware from the NSO Group, it was not entirely shocking. This was yet another group of people attacked for fighting for basic human rights. However, the fact that President Obrador had publicly assured the world that his administration was no longer spying on activists, and more specifically that “there is no longer any relationship with the company [Pegasus],” makes this case particularly enraging.
The recent Mexico revelations by digital rights organisation Red en los Defensa de los Derechos Digitales (R3D) and The Citizen Lab is far from an isolated case. The relentless unearthing of spyware abuse across the globe — from Hungary and Poland to Thailand, El Salvador to Jordan — drives home the point that while this industry remains unregulated, no entity can fully be trusted to employ this technology while upholding human rights under international law.
Nor can private actors be left to their own devices with human rights policies and opaque ethics boards that fail us all. So we must act now.
To stop the proliferation of spyware technology, Access Now, civil society from across the globe, the private sector, and the Government of Catalonia joined together to drive concerted global change through the Geneva Declaration on Targeted Surveillance and Human Rights – a collective commitment to human rights in the digital age. It sets out clear measures for multilateral organisations, governments, and private sector actors, and demands an immediate moratorium.
Despite the growing evidence of its abuse and harms, rules around the acquisition and deployment of spyware remain at the discretion of national governments, who are quick to use the national security card as an overarching justification for the use of this technology, and as pretext to crack down on dissent and critical voices.
Governments routinely use vague and ill-defined laws, especially in authoritarian regimes, as gateways to stifle activists and journalists. This technology infringes on our rights in a way that contravenes any alleged benefits. Through their aggressive, rampant use of spyware, governments are violating our fundamental rights to privacy, freedom of expression, assembly, and opinion, when they have the obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil them. The false narrative that we have to make a choice between privacy and security must be retired.
Invasive spyware gives all-inclusive access to targets’ devices, and, effectively, to their lives and state-of-mind. Who they call, what they say, what they surf and when, is all available to the perpetrators – usually their own government – thus enabling future abuses. Those who have experienced this violation often come out of the trauma constantly looking over their shoulders.
This is what spyware does to its victims, and to the wider community it reverberates through; frightening changemakers into self-censorship. If this industry continues to operate this way, we cannot predict what this technology may be used for next, or how many lives it will destroy.
UN Secretary General António Guterres warned that the unchecked use of spyware and surveillance technology adversely affects human rights work. The people attacked lead democratic movements, expose corruption, and represent vulnerable communities. Whether it is to extort, coerce, silence, imprison, or assassinate, spyware is a dangerous weapon.
Wider commitment for a moratorium from stakeholders across the board is both urgent and essential. We need to build on global public and private action to think beyond Pegasus or existing tools, and focus on regulating the surveillance tech industry as a whole. It has been left to facilitate human rights abuses for far too long.
The new infection cases in Mexico, despite previous government assurances, show us exactly why we have no option but to implement a global moratorium now. We cannot rely on the good will or promises of governments or companies. This cyber armoury must be locked away, and spyware assembly lines immediately halted.
Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.