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Amnesty urges moratorium on surveillance technology in Pegasus scandal

Rights group warns alleged widespread use of NSO Group’s software shows ‘devastating impact of poorly regulated spyware industry on human rights worldwide’

In this Oct. 8, 2019, file photo, a woman types on a keyboard in New York. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)
In this Oct. 8, 2019, file photo, a woman types on a keyboard in New York. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)

PARIS — Allegations that governments used phone malware supplied by an Israeli firm to spy on journalists, activists and heads of state have “exposed a global human rights crisis,” Amnesty International said, asking for a moratorium on the sale and use of surveillance technology.

In a Friday statement, the non-governmental organization warned of “the devastating impact of the poorly regulated spyware industry on human rights worldwide.”

The NSO Group’s Pegasus software — able to switch on a phone’s camera or microphone and harvest its data — is at the center of a storm after a list of about 50,000 alleged potential surveillance targets was leaked to rights groups.

Amnesty International and French media nonprofit Forbidden Stories collaborated with a clutch of media companies, including the Washington Post, the Guardian and Le Monde, to analyze and publish the list.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who was on the list of alleged targets, had to change his phone and number.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks on his cellphone during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, on July 20, 2020. (John Thys, Pool Photo via AP)

“Not only does it expose the risk and harm to those individuals unlawfully targeted, but also the extremely destabilizing consequences on global human rights and the security of the digital environment at large,” Agnes Callamard, Amnesty’s Secretary General, said in the statement.

Israeli surveillance company NSO Group “is just one company.”

“This is a dangerous industry that has operated on the edges of legality for too long, and this cannot be allowed to continue,” she said.

“Now, we urgently need greater regulation over the cyber-surveillance industry, accountability for human rights violations and abuses, and greater oversight over this shadowy industry.”

Amnesty called for an immediate moratorium on any export, sale, transfer and use of surveillance technology “until there is a human rights-compliant regulatory framework in place.”

“The fact that world and other political leaders themselves may have come into the spyware technology’s crosshairs will hopefully serve as a long-overdue wake-up call for them and states worldwide to step up and regulate this industry,” Callamard said.

The list of alleged targets includes at least 180 journalists, 600 politicians, 85 human rights activists and 65 business leaders.

NSO Group insists its software is only intended for use in fighting terrorism and other crimes, and that it exports to 45 countries, with approval from the Israeli government.

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