Human rights experts with the United Nations on Thursday urged countries to temporarily suspend the sale and transfer of surveillance technology across the world. This comes amid allegations that Israeli-made Pegasus spyware was used to monitor politicians, journalists and activists around the world, including India.

“It is highly dangerous and irresponsible to allow the surveillance technology and trade sector to operate as a human rights-free zone,” the experts said in a statement.

They added that “such practices violate the rights to freedom of expression, privacy and liberty”. The experts said it also endangers lives, hurts press freedom and undermines democracy.

The experts said a global moratorium should be in place till international regulations were adopted to ensure that human rights would be safeguarded. “International human rights law requires all States to adopt robust domestic legal safeguards to protect individuals from unlawful surveillance, invasion of their privacy or threats to their freedom of expression, assembly and association,” they added.

The alleged misuse of the Pegasus spyware was revealed in July when Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International accessed a database featuring more than 50,000 phone numbers “concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens”.

They shared the list with Indian news website The Wire and 16 other media organisations as part of the Pegasus Project. The media organisations found that heads of states, activists and journalists across the world were part of the database which reflected potential targets of surveillance using Pegasus. Cyber-surveillance company NSO Group has in multiple statement maintained that reports about misuse of Pegasus spyware were “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories”.

Referring to this, the experts said:

“Given the extraordinary audacity and contempt for human rights that such widespread surveillance shows, if the denial of collusion by the NSO Group is to have any credibility at all, the company must disclose whether or not it ever conducted any meaningful human rights due diligence in line 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.” 

— Office of the High Commissioner, UN Human Rights

The UN human rights experts also urged Israel to disclose measures taken to review transactions of the NSO Group’s exports of cyber-surveillance technologies.

“It is the duty of States to verify that companies like the NSO Group do not sell or transfer technology to or contract with States and entities that are like to use them to violate human rights,” they added.

World leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan are also among the list of potential targets of the spyware.

The Indian part of the list includes phone numbers used by at least 40 Indian journalists, Opposition leaders including Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, two Union ministers and virologist Gagandeep Kang. Former Election Commissioner of India Ashok Lavasa and an ex-Supreme Court staffer who accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment also featured on the list.

Also read:

Pegasus: Allegations serious if reports are true, says SC, asks Centre to attend next hearing

Why Americans should be alarmed by the Pegasus spyware controversy in India