Yesterday, BBC Radio’s File on Four The Spy in Your Pocket added to reports that surveillance software designed to track drug-dealers and terrorists is being used to spy on journalists, human rights activists and lawyers carrying out legitimate activities. Last month, media reports stated that a human rights lawyer involved in a civil case against cyber-surveillance firm NSO was targeted using commercial spyware. It has also been reported that the spyware - which exploited a previously unknown vulnerability in WhatsApp - was developed by NSO.
The news came as Amnesty International announced it is supporting legal action against Israel’s defence ministry, demanding that it halt export licences for NSO’s spyware. The surveillance technology has been linked by campaign groups, media organisations and academics to the targeting of lawyers, journalists and human rights activists, including an Amnesty International staff member.
NSO says it is investigating the WhatsApp hack and its spyware is intended to fight only crime and terrorism.
Global Witness’s Co-Founder Patrick Alley said:
“Journalists, human rights lawyers and activists are fundamental in the fight against corruption and oppression. We stand alongside them against any force that tries to stop us from holding power to account.
The use of spyware against these groups and individuals is abhorrent and has a chilling effect on civil society worldwide.
Regardless of what NSO says, there is mounting evidence to suggest that a number of governments have used its technology to target their critics.
We stand with leading groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Privacy International, calling upon NSO to transparently address the serious allegations concerning the abuse of its technology by governments such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Mexico.
We also call on NSO and its investors to deliver on their promises of bringing the company’s operating procedures into line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and halt the sale and maintenance of its products to those accused of the abuse of surveillance technology.”
Private equity firm Novalpina, which announced its purchase of a stake in NSO earlier this year, is headed by former Global Witness board member Stephen Peel. It has responded to criticism of NSO in letters to the human rights groups (1 and 2), describing its due diligence and investigative procedures and disagrees with allegations made against the spyware company.
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Global Witness statement on surveillance
Global Witness upholds the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy. We stand in solidarity with human rights groups worldwide in opposition to use of advanced forms of surveillance to target journalists, advocates of all kinds, and lawyers.