The United Nations has called for a moratorium on the sale of "life threatening" surveillance technology and singled out the NSO Group and Israel for criticism.
The catalyst for that UN's action is the recent allegation that NSO Group's wares have been widely used beyond their intended purpose of national security, and instead put to work tracking political dissidents, media, and others that oppressive governments wish to observe.
"It is highly dangerous and irresponsible to allow the surveillance technology and trade sector to operate as a human rights-free zone," warned warned eight UN experts on human rights*.
"We are deeply concerned that highly sophisticated intrusive tools are being used to monitor, intimidate and silence human rights defenders, journalists and political opponents," the experts added, on grounds that they violate human rights to freedom and liberty, and "possibly endanger the lives of hundreds of individuals, imperil media freedom, and undermine democracy, peace, security and international cooperation."
The UN announcement then zeroes in on NSO Group, calling on it to "disclose whether or not it ever conducted any meaningful human rights due diligence in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and publish fully the findings of any internal probes it may have undertaken on this issue".
Israel, the NSO Group's home, is also called on to act by revealing if it reviewed NSO Group's export sales.
No other vendors or nation-states are named, but the UN wants 'em all in the sin bin. Its statement calls for the international community to "develop a robust regulatory framework to prevent, mitigate and redress the negative human rights impact of surveillance technology".
While that document is developed, the UN wants the world to "adopt a moratorium on its sale and transfer".
- Microsoft, Google, Citizen Lab blow lid off zero-day bug-exploiting spyware sold to governments
- NSO Group 'will no longer be responding to inquiries' about misuse of its software
- Australian cops, FBI created backdoored chat app, told crims it was secure – then snooped on 9,000 users' plots
Which sounds lovely but is likely impractical. While several efforts are underway to define norms governing acceptable use of information technology in cross-border and in-country conflicts, few are binding, some major governments have not signed up, and any government can in any case use plausibly detached crime gangs to do its work for it.
Throw in the fact that several nations are increasingly letting it be known their military and electronic warfare agencies have offensive capabilities and will not be afraid to use them when it is felt to be justified, and it is clear the UN's call may make life more difficult still for NSO Group but has little chance of stamping out the use of surveillance tech whenever a government wants to us it. ®
* The experts are: Ms Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression; Ms Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Mr Clement Nyaletsossi Voulé, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; and UN Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises (known as the Working Group on Business and Human Rights) – Mr Surya Deva (Chairperson), Ms Elzbieta Karska (Vice-Chairperson), Mr Githu Muigai, Mr Dante Pesce, and Ms Anita Ramasastry.