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7 Sep 2021

Usama Khilji, Al Jazeera

Commentary: The urgent need for a moratorium on sale of surveillance technology

In July 2021, an investigation by a consortium of media outlets revealed that several governments used phone malware supplied by an Israeli firm to spy on journalists, activists, opposition figures and heads of state... [A]s Amnesty International recently said, the Pegasus scandal “exposed a global human rights crisis”. Now, this realisation must lead to a global moratorium on the sale and use of surveillance technology until a set of guidelines rooted in international human rights law is developed by states and international bodies to prevent the repeat of such abuses in the future.

... Companies that develop and sell surveillance technology are supposed to be held to a high standard of scrutiny and compliance in accordance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which outline the corporate responsibility to respect human rights. This includes conducting detailed and independent human rights due diligence and human rights impact assessments before the sale of surveillance technology to a government. However, as demonstrated by Pegasus software and others being bought and used by several authoritarian regimes with histories of unlawfully using surveillance technology against members of civil society and the press, the system is not working.

There are clear steps that need to be taken to prevent continued abuse of such technologies by authoritarian governments and violent non-state entities like Mexican drug cartels.

First, there is a need for stringent licensing terms on which surveillance technology is provided to governments, including clauses that call for revocation of the right to use the technology if international human rights standards are violated with the use of the technology.

Further, strict export controls need to be put in place by governments where spyware is produced and sold so that they can fulfil their duty to protect human rights under the UN Guiding Principles. It is important that an independent human rights due diligence process is maintained...

Very importantly, there needs to be civilian oversight of surveillance measures in each country so that spyware can only be used against individuals suspected of serious crimes rather than against the political opponents of governing authorities in violation of international human rights law.