Former U.N. Adviser Says Global Spyware Is A Threat To Democracy

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Israeli company NSO Group's spyware was used to spy on journalists, human rights activists and political dissidents in several countries. A former U.N. adviser says this type of spyware is a threat to democracy.

Updated July 20, 2021 at 3:57 PM ET

Spyware made by the Israeli company NSO Group was used to spy on journalists, human rights activists and political dissidents in several countries, according to The Washington Post and other media organizations.

NSO Group says it sells its spyware to governments to track terrorists and criminals. But the Post found the Pegasus spyware was used in “attempted and successful hacks of 37 smartphones belonging to journalists, human rights activists, business executives and the two women closest to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

David Kaye, a former United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression, calls the private spyware industry a threat to democracy. Spyware often can collect pretty much anything on a target’s phone without them even knowing: emails, call logs, text messages, passwords, usernames, documents and more.

“We are on the precipice of a global surveillance tech catastrophe, an avalanche of tools shared across borders with governments failing to constrain their export or use,” he writes with Marietje Schaake in the Post.

Kaye has been speaking about the dangers of spyware abuse for years. He’s now a law professor at the University of California, Irvine. He talked with NPR’s Morning Edition.

Interview Highlights

On governments conducting surveillance on people in other countries

This gets at the fundamental problem. There is no international law that governs the use of this technology across borders. There have been cases where foreign governments have conducted spying of people in the United States. So, for example, the Ethiopian government several years ago conducted a spying operation against an Ethiopian American in Maryland. And yet this individual had no tools to fight back. And that’s the kind of problem that we’re seeing here right now: essentially transnational repression, but we lack the tools to fight it.

On dangers to people beyond those directly targeted

If you think about the kind of surveillance that we’re talking about, foreign governments having access to individual journalists or activists or others, that in itself is a kind of direct threat to individuals. But it goes even beyond that. I mean, there are many, many cases that show that this kind of surveillance technology has been used against individuals or the circle of individuals who then face some serious consequence, some of whom have been arrested even to suffer the worst consequence, such as murder, as there’s actually indication that people around the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi were surveilled both before and after his disappearance and murder by the Saudi government a few years back.

On spyware’s threat to democracy

Spyware is aimed in many of these situations at the very pillars of democratic life. It’s aimed at the journalists and the opposition figures, those in dissent that we’ve been talking about. And yet there’s this very significant problem that it’s lawless. I mean, it’s taking place in a context without governance by the rule of law.

And that’s essentially what we’re calling for. We’re calling for this kind of industry to finally be placed under export control standards, under other kinds of standards so that its tools not only are more difficult to transfer, but are also used in a way that is consistent with fundamental rule of law standards.

Chad Campbell and Jan Johnson produced and edited the audio interview. James Doubek produced for the web.

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