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Skyline International for Human Rights (SIHR) has officially launched its campaign, aiming to stop the commercial use of the spying software Pegasus, developed by Israeli company NSO Group. According to an investigation carried out by Citizen Lab and the French based organization Forbidden Stories, this technology has been used to facilitate violations and crimes against freedom of expression and human rights on an unprecedented scale.

During its presentation at the event, Daniel Rivera, Skyline Director, mentioned that this technology was supposedly created to fight against terrorism. Still, the truth is that hundreds if not thousands of journalists, activists, heads of state, and other professionals and their families have been targeted by intelligence services around the MENA region using this technology.

Skyline International for Human rights believes it is crucial to stop this technology from spreading and being commercialized around the world without a clear legal framework regulating its usage. Skyline has sent A joint letter to the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights to condemn Pegasus and urge to take action against countries that used NSO Group's spyware to hack the phones of human rights activists, journalists and actors/individuals.

SIHR has invited leading experts in human rights and surveillance technology to increase social awareness and explain to the public the dangers of this growing industry.

Marwa Fatafta, policy manager at Access Now, began her intervention by explaining the origins of this technology and how it works. Pegasus is a spy software developed by the the Israeli company NSO Group created in 2010. It can infect your phone and extract all the information placed within the device: email, messages, photos, pictures. In addition, it can access the camera and audio, among other functions of your device that can be remotely manipulated. All this information is extracted and send it to a client who is interested in spying on you. As Marwa mentioned: "indeed turns your phone into a spying device."

The Gulf Center for Human Rights' executive director, Khalid Ibrahim, talked about the cooperation between the NSO Group and oppressive governments in the MENA region. He explained the impact on the peaceful and legitimate work of human rights defenders and what we should do to enhance the protection of HRDs in the face of such cooperation. Khalid underlined the importance of this campaign to stop companies such as NSO Group. He stated: "This technology is profoundly affecting the community of human rights defenders in the MENA region. It is vital to stop this cooperation between the NSO and other groups alike with aggressive governments in the MENA region and elsewhere." Then, he added: "Precisely, Ahmed Mansoor is an example of how this technology is being used in the MENA region."

Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa Coordinator at Committee for Protecting Journalist CPJ talked about journalists' impact, including those online and exiled. Will also give examples on those covering corruption in Morocco and my personal experience documenting elections fraud in Egypt.

Morocco is important because many journalists have been affected by spyware and a combination of legal actions and other tactics such as smear campaigns and physical assaults, hampering their ability to investigate corruption cases. This is at the heart of the problem. Privacy is crucial to be able to conduct their job, to contact sources and publish critical information. According to CPJ's research, journalists who work online and usually abroad are especially vulnerable to these attacks.

Sharif pointed out that according to CPJ's investigation, 17 States have been involved in activities persecuting activities abroad. For example, Khashoggi was an exiled journalist. Many others like him, who could not keep publishing in their countries because their publications were shut, had the internet as their only venue to public their work. It is then when states decide to go the extra mile and persecute them using this technology. According to Sherif: "Therefore the response should not be local, regional but international."

The only thing left to ask is what we can do to protect ourselves against this technology. According to Khalid, it is essential to be sure your phone has not been infected with the help of an IT expert. Also, it's impossible to file a local complaint about this matter or protect the victims, so it is essential to use the concept of international jurisdiction and take the battle to internationally recognized courts, which can take legal action at the international level. The GCHR, in collation with other organizations, has recently participated in legal case presented in France against the NSO Group. More and more groups are joining these efforts to isolate NSO, and I believe more International organizations and states should join the effort.

EU has taken some accountability measures by establishing some expert control on this technology, and we expect the US to do the same soon. Also, we expect the US that can establish strict controls over its companies will do the same pressure its allies to do the same (Morocco, Israel, Saudi, UAE), which are selling, investing and profiting this technology. Investigating and reporting these abuses by the US government would help emphasizes the work of civil society and the general public on this issue.

In summary, it is paramount to continue pressuring states, international organizations, and the public to stop commercializing this kind of technology that flagrantly violates human rights and freedom of expression. This technology weaponizes civilian technology, turns it against its users, causing tremendous damage to his work, private life, and reputation. Today, our guests have shown the dangers of this software and industry and what we must do to stop this spy software from spreading worldwide.

 

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