Is Amnesty right to say NSO failing new U.N. human rights test?

NSO: No violations and we already adopted UN guidelines

By
October 15, 2019 18:19
A man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him

A man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him. (photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)

Amnesty International accused the Herzliya-based NSO Group of allowing its technology to be used to perform surveillance on two human rights defenders in Morocco.

The human rights group said on Thursday that its report invalidated NSO’s September announcement of its compliance with UN policy guidelines for the sale and use of surveillance technologies, like its Pegasus software that allows
penetrating a target’s telephone data.

NSO denied any wrongdoing, while sticking to its policy of not commenting on the specific case.

The Jerusalem Post has learned that since NSO’s September announcement of compliance with UN standards for evaluating purchasers – probing allegations of misuse and for transparency – the elite Israeli technology company has sometimes become more open in discussing its dilemmas.

Maati Monjib, an academic and human rights activist, and Abdessadak El Bouchattaoui, a human rights lawyer who has represented protesters from the Hirak El-Rif social justice movement, have been targeted repeatedly since 2017, said Amnesty.

Both received SMS messages “containing malicious links that if clicked would secretly install Pegasus software, allowing the sender to obtain near-total control of the phone,” said the NGO. “The same technology was used to target an Amnesty staff member and a Saudi Arabian human rights activist in June 2018.”

Amnesty said that the NSO Group “is known to only sell its spyware to government intelligence and law enforcement agencies, raising serious concerns that Moroccan security agencies are behind the surveillance.”

Danna Ingleton, deputy director of Amnesty Tech, said that Amnesty International’s research “has uncovered chilling new evidence that further illustrates how NSO Group’s malicious spyware is enabling state-sponsored repression of human rights defenders. Subjecting peaceful critics and activists who speak out about Morocco’s human rights records to harassment or intimidation through invasive digital surveillance is an appalling violation of their rights to privacy and freedom of expression.”

According to Amnesty, “The attacks are part of a wider pattern of reprisals against human rights defenders by the Moroccan authorities in recent years, particularly in the wake of a growing crackdown on protesters in the northern Rif region” who have tried to boost autonomy for the Western Sahara region of Morocco since 2016.

Amnesty noted that NSO claims its technology is only used for lawful purposes such as counterterrorism and fighting crime.

The human rights group also acknowledged that NSO released a human rights policy that said a lot of the right things about having outside inspectors to ensure that its due diligence mechanisms for investigating and preventing abuse by governments are sufficient.

But this was Amnesty’s first report specifically trying to undermine NSO’s claim to be following the highest UN standards, by arguing that NSO has a “lack of transparency over investigations into misuse of its technology” that raises “serious questions” about whether it is preventing abuse.

“The latest evidence makes it patently clear – NSO is not currently able to prevent governments from unlawfully using its surveillance technology as tools to abuse human rights,” claimed Amnesty’s Danna Ingleton.

The Post has learned that NSO’s view is its compliance with UN guidelines since September goes beyond its past safeguards – and with its past safeguards it had already withdrawn access to its technology from three specific clients and had decided to forego deals worth around $250 million.

What NSO believes is new is that since September is its allowing whistleblowers to communicate directly with it through its website; is planning to file a public accountability report in the coming year; is adding new senior foreign oversight advisers to press for aggressive due diligence; and generally has a more transparent attitude.

The three foreign advisers NSO has brought in – former US Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, former French ambassador to the US Gèrard Araud and former top homeland security official and current Harvard professor Juliette Kayyem – are all serious figures who presumably would not lend their names to NSO lightly.

Despite these changes, NSO argues that even the UN guidelines do not require it to publicly share any rare cases of clients that misuses its technology, and that it is still bound by national security and contractual considerations from total transparency.

Without addressing the specific complaints of Amnesty from Thursday, the Post understands that NSO sometimes may allow its technology to be used to perform surveillance on human rights activists who double as terrorists or who could help bring down a terrorist.

This of course gets into the messiest area in terms of how to define a human rights activist as off-limits versus one which might not be off-limits.

For example, both of the Moroccans mentioned have some kind of criminal cloud hanging over them. Does this make them valid targets for surveillance, or do such charges need to be treated with skepticism if they relate to freedom of speech and a government initiative to drown out minority rights’ free speech?

Amnesty said that one of the activists targeted with NSO software, Abdessadak El Bouchattaoui, received an unjust two-year prison sentence in April 2018 from a Moroccan criminal court for comments posted online, in which he criticized the use of excessive force by the authorities during the Hirak Al- Rif protests. He told Amnesty International that he has been followed, repeatedly faced death threats, and his family and clients have been harassed. He has now sought asylum in France, said Amnesty.

In 2015, noted Amnesty, Moroccan authorities accused the other activists – Maati Monjib and four others – of “threatening the internal security of the state” through “propaganda” that may threaten “the loyalty that citizens owe to the State and institutions of the Moroccan people” under Article 206 of the Penal Code, according to official court papers. He could be imprisoned for up to five years if found guilty. This charge was leveled simply for promoting a mobile application for citizen journalism that protected users’ privacy, said Amnesty.

A final question is what impact the report has on the new September policy when the underlying events occurred in 2017, even if the report was published on Thursday.


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