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UN special rapporteurs call for surveillance tech moratorium

In the wake of revelations about NSO Groups Pegasus spyware, a number of special rapporteurs from the United Nations are re-igniting calls for a global moratorium on the sale and transfer of surveillance technologies

United Nations (UN) human rights experts have called on all states to impose a global moratorium on the sale and transfer of “life-threatening” surveillance technologies, at least until there are guarantees it can be used in full compliance with international human rights standards.

The call for a moratorium follows Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International’s exposure of how the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware was being used to conduct widespread surveillance of hundreds of mobile devices, including those of human rights defenders, journalists and political leaders.

The experts include Irene Khan, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression; Mary Lawlor, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; and Clement Nyaletsossi Voulé, special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, among others, sat on the UN’s Working Group on Business and Human Rights.

They warned in a statement that it’s “highly dangerous and irresponsible” to allow the surveillance technology sector to become a “human rights-free zone”.

They added that “such practices violate the rights to freedom of expression, privacy and liberty, possibly endanger the lives of hundreds of individuals, imperil media freedom, and undermine democracy, peace, security and international cooperation.”

In May 2019, David Kaye, the then UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, published a damning report, which recommended placing an immediate moratorium on the use, transfer and sale of surveillance tools until international regulations incorporating human rights safeguards were adopted.

Presenting his findings to the 41st session of the UN’s Human Rights Council on 26 June 2019, Kaye described the international situation as a “surveillance free-for-all in which states and industry are essentially collaborating in the spread of technology that is causing immediate and regular harm to individuals worldwide”.

UN member states, however, ended up sidestepping Kaye’s call for a moratorium between governments and the private sector, instead opting to commission a report looking at the technology’s impact on human rights.

“In recent years, we have repeatedly raised the alarm about the danger that surveillance technology poses to human rights. Once again, we urge the international community to develop a robust regulatory framework to prevent, mitigate and redress the negative human rights impact of surveillance technology and, pending that, to adopt a moratorium on its sale and transfer,” said the UN experts.

“International human rights law requires all states to adopt robust domestic legal safeguards to protect individuals from unlawful surveillance, invasion of their privacy or threats to their freedom of expression, assembly and association.”

In regards to the conduct of NSO Group and its clients in particular, the experts added that, given the “extraordinary audacity and contempt for human rights” shown by such widespread surveillance, the company must publicly disclose whether it conducted any meaningful human rights due diligence in line with the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

“We also urge Israel, as the NSO Group’s home country, to disclose fully what measures it took to review NSO export transactions in light of its own human rights obligations,” they added. “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 like to use them to violate human rights.”

Read more about technology and human rights

  • Venture capital firms and high-profile tech accelerators are not conducting human rights due diligence on their investments, which means they cannot be sure the companies they invest in are not causing, or contributing to, human rights abuses.
  • The European Commission’s proposal for artificial intelligence regulation focuses on creating a risk-based, market-led approach replete with self-assessments, transparency procedures and technical standards, but critics warn it falls short of being able to protect people’s fundamental rights and mitigating the technology’s worst abuses.
  • The United Nations (UN) has identified multinational telecommunications company Motorola Solutions as supplying surveillance equipment to illegal Israeli settlements and checkpoints in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

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