Spyware threatening privacy, human rights, UN report warns

New UN Human Rights Office report examines abusive spyware use by states.

Spyware threatening privacy, human rights, UN report warns

A new UN report warned Friday that the right to privacy is coming under ever greater pressure from modern networked digital technologies whose features make them formidable tools for surveillance, control, and oppression.

"This makes it more essential that these technologies are reined in by effective regulation based on international human rights law and standards," Elizabeth Throssell, a spokesperson for the UN Human Rights Office, said at a UN press conference.

Throssell said the report is the latest on privacy in the digital age by the UN Human Rights Office.

"What our report is saying is that this is a really, really crucial issue," she said, noting that the report does not refer to individual countries but refers to the Pegasus spyware which Israel developed.

"One of the first reports that our office did into privacy in the digital age came out in 2014. But of course, that's quite a long time ago in technology terms. So, the whole landscape is changing."

Former UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet, who stepped down last month, said in April: "Pegasus spyware is reportedly being used in at least 45 countries, often in total secrecy and outside of any legal framework."

Abuse of hacking tools

Throssell said that the new report looks at the critical areas of state authorities' abuse of intrusive hacking tools.

It examines the critical role of robust encryption methods in protecting human rights online and the impacts of widespread digital monitoring of public spaces, both offline and online.

"The report details how surveillance tools such as Pegasus can turn most smartphones into '24-hour surveillance devices,' allowing the 'intruder' access, not only to everything on our mobiles but also weaponizing them to spy on our lives," said Throssell.

The report states: "While purportedly being deployed for combating terrorism and crime, such spyware tools have often been used for illegitimate reasons, including to clamp down on critical or dissenting views and on those who express them, including journalists, opposition political figures, and human rights defenders."

It says that governments often fail to adequately inform the public about their surveillance activities, and even where surveillance tools are initially rolled out for legitimate goals.

"They can easily be repurposed, often serving ends for which they were not originally intended," says the report.

"Digital technologies bring enormous benefits to societies. But pervasive surveillance comes at a high cost, undermining rights and choking the development of vibrant, pluralistic democracies," said Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif.

"In short, the right to privacy is more at risk than ever before," she stressed. "This is why action is needed and needed now."