On 18 July, an investigation led by 80 journalists worldwide and known as the Pegasus Project revealed that nearly 200 journalists around the world had been spied on using Pegasus software, a tool developed by the Israeli cybersurveillance company NSO and sold to a number of clients, including states. Human rights defenders, political opponents, criminals, lawyers, diplomats and heads of state have also been spied on.
This revelation drew attention to the danger of such surveillance software, which threatens not only the right to privacy of individuals, but also the confidentiality of sources, freedom of expression, the right to information, and can lead to harassment and blackmail.
It also demonstrated the severe lack of regulation around such surveillance software. Access to information by rogue actors can only be prevented by robust regulation. In their statement, the UN experts called on every state to adopt strong national legal safeguards, that guarantee that the use of surveillance technology is “in compliance with international human rights standards”.
An earlier UN report from May 2019 had already raised the idea of a moratorium, but it had been ignored by countries.
In its statement, the expert group also said it was in contact with the NSO group as well as the government of Israel, and recalled that “It is the duty of States to verify that companies like the NSO Group do not sell or transfer technology to or contract with States and entities that are likely to use them to violate human rights.”
Tim Dawson, chair of the IFJ's Surveillance of Journalists Expert Group, said: “With nearly 200 journalists around the world known to have had their phones targeted using the Pegasus spyware, it is clear that the regulation of the sale and use of this software is wholly inadequate. The UN's demand for a moratorium on sales is entirely appropriate. Indeed, I would prefer to see the use of this software forbidden until a transparent, and internationally supervised regulatory framework for its use has been established.”
IFJ General Secretary Anthony Bellanger said: “We call on all states to follow this moratorium and take concrete steps to regulate the use, sale and export of surveillance technologies. States have a legal duty to protect individuals from the risks of human rights violations that such software entails. Through strict regulation, they must force the companies that create such software to be transparent and accountable.”