Spyware is a weapon, say civil society leaders

CyberPeace Institute

Surveillance technology has become an urgent threat to human rights and security, according to civil society organizations assembled at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum.

At the meeting in Davos, the CyberPeace Institute joined leaders from Access Now, Human Rights Watch, the International Trade Union Confederation, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Amnesty International to call for a global moratorium on the trade in spyware until the security and human rights implications have been fully assessed.

Brett Solomon (Executive Director and co-founder, Access Now), Peggy Hicks (Director, UN Human Rights Watch), Agnes Callamard (Secretary General, Amnesty International), Kenneth Roth (Executive Director, Human Rights Watch), Stéphane Duguin (Chief Executive Officer, CyberPeace Institute) and Timothy Noonan (Director, Campaigns and Communications, International Trade Union Confederation)

The group also urged world leaders to implement a regulatory framework to hold the corporate developers of surveillance software accountable — something that is currently lacking in many regions — and to prosecute private spyware companies found to be infringing human rights.

The civil society leaders explored how free expression was vital for the healthy functioning of society. Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, noted that, “reigning in spyware is the key to preserving democracy. Democracy can not exist without civil society, and civil society can not exist with spyware”.

The comments come almost a year after a major investigation coordinated by Forbidden Stories revealed that 50,000 phone numbers — including those of journalists, activists and heads of state — had been leaked using NSO Group’s spyware Pegasus. The ground-breaking collaboration between more than 80 journalists from 17 media organizations in 10 countries found that many Pegasus clients were state actors, and that NSO Group had not taken adequate measures to prevent its tools being used for unlawful surveillance.

Stéphane Duguin, the Chief Executive Officer of the CyberPeace Institute, highlighted the fact that the companies selling software like Pegasus are a direct threat to peace and justice. “We’re not talking about a market which hides in dark alleys or the darknet. This is a very public market, where each dollar spend is a dollar invested against security, something that is fuelled by state demand and industry supply. Today, we need a moratorium, we need regulation and we need litigation. We should not forget that the states we’re calling on to address this issue have created the problem”.

The CyberPeace Institute joined its civil society colleagues in stressing that the primary power and duty to control the scope of the spyware industry lies with state actors. World leaders should bring to bear their economic, technological and legal oversight to ensure that companies trading in spyware are held accountable for their actions.


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