Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and eight other NGOs have sent a joint letter to NSO Group, an Israeli company that produces spyware, accusing it of failing to keep many of the undertakings it has given to respect and implement the UN's Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
This was a missed opportunity for NSO Group, according to the ten-page letter published on 27 April by this NGO coalition, which is based on public statements by NSO Group and Novalpina Capital, a European company with a majority stake in the group, and on their correspondence with various civil society organisations.
In a letter on 23 December to the head of Citizen Lab, a centre that investigates technology threats to human rights, NSO Group claimed that it "takes seriously its responsibility to respect human rights, and is strongly committed to avoiding causing, contributing to, or being directly linked to negative human rights impacts."
This claim was made three days after Citizen Lab published a report revealing that, in July and August 2020, government operatives probably linked to the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates used NSO Group's Pegasus spyware to hack into a total of 36 personal phones belonging to journalists, producers, anchors, and executives at Al Jazeera.
In their open letter, the NGO coalition reiterates its requests to NSO Group to provide independent, verifiable information that its software is not implicated in the surveillance of dissidents, journalists and human rights defenders and in violations of international human rights law.
"NSO Group must respect its human rights obligations, in particular, its obligations to stop supplying authoritarian governments with the means to spy on journalists," said Paul Coppin, the head of RSF's legal unit. "If this company gives public undertakings to do this, it should be more than a public relations operation. The undertakings must be carried out."
The NGO coalition's letter has a table listing undertakings given by NSO Group and Novalpina Capital during the past two years that they have failed to keep. They include the "robust transparency programme" and the "Human Rights Impact Assessment" announced in March 2019, when Novalpina Capital acquired NSO Group. The letter also points out the gaps and inconsistencies in the "due diligence" framework it promised.
NSO Group's Pegasus spyware has been used repeatedly in recent years to spy on journalists' devices. The victims include Omar Radi, a Moroccan journalist and human rights defender, and co-creator of Le Desk news website. Since the revelation that Radi was targeted by this spyware from January 2019 to January 2020, he has been persecuted by the Moroccan authorities and has been jailed since July 2020.
They also include Aboubakr Jamaï, a Moroccan journalist living in self-imposed exile in France since 2007. On two occasions in the past two years, pro-government media in Morocco have revealed confidential matters on which Jamaï was working as a consultant, divulging content that could only have been obtained from his phone in order to defame his professional associates.
The many other journalists targeted in this way have reportedly included Ben Hubbard of the New York Times and Griselda Triana, the wife of Javier Valdez Cárdenas, a Mexican journalist who was murdered, as well as other Mexican journalists.
These are nine NGOs that signed the letter:
● Access Now
● Amnesty International
● Committee to Protect Journalists
● Heartland Initiative
● Human Rights Watch
● Paradigm Initiative
● Privacy International
● R3D: Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales
● Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
The entire ten-page letter can be read here.