GENEVA: The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has issued a warning about the misuse of surveillance technology in the wake of reports of spyware being used to hack the smartphones of human rights activists, business executives and journalists. Michelle Bachelet says that illicit use of tools can undermine people’s human rights and destroy democratic societies.
It is not yet clear to what extent Pegasus spyware, developed and sold by the Israeli firm NSO Group, has been used to spy on journalists, human rights defenders, opposition politicians and others. But Bachelet receives revelations that the phones of some 50,000 people were hacked, which were extremely dangerous.
The High Commissioner’s spokesman, Rupert Colville, describes the emerging information as extremely disturbing and notes that it may be just the tip of the iceberg. He told the VOA that the people whose phones were hacked were not Islamic State terrorists or criminals. They are journalists, human rights activists and others engaged in legitimate activities, he said.
“It’s very scary. The potential is very serious and, I think, a wake-up call to everyone that we need to do something about this. We need to find some way to control it. Back to this genie bottle because it’s potentially extremely intrusive and in some cases extremely dangerous for many of us,” Colville said.
In a statement, Bachelet expressed his doubts about the use of these intensive intrusion surveillance tools. He said that they can be justified only in cases of investigation of serious offenses and serious security threats.
She notes that even if recent allegations about the use of spyware are partially true, that red line has been crossed repeatedly with complete exemptions.
Colville said surveillance devices have reportedly been used to arrest, intimidate and even kill journalists and human rights defenders. He said that the potential for misuse of Pegasus software is huge and very dangerous.
“You can get people who are spying on any politician, any kind of opposition, to stay in power. And that, of course, is probably the most dangerous thing overall. It can be used to destroy democracy, to destroy human rights of all kinds—freedom of expression, freedom of opinion, right to privacy and, in extreme cases, the right to life,” Colville said.
Bachelet said companies that develop and distribute surveillance technology are responsible for protecting human rights from harm. He said that they should take immediate steps to minimize and rectify the damages caused by their products.
Bachelet said countries need to enact laws to hold companies legally accountable for illicit use of their technology. He added that urgent measures need to be taken to better regulate the sale, transfer and use of surveillance technology to ensure that it complies with human rights law.