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UN Human Rights Council faces pressure to denounce and investigate Pegasus surveillance

Citing risks posed to journalists, civil society groups reiterated the need to hold the secretive surveillance industry accountable.

“Members of the U.N. Human Rights Council cannot allow for this staggering widespread surveillance to continue unchallenged and unchecked,” read the letter sent by 95 civil society organisations and independent experts to the members participating in the ongoing 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council. The letter urges them to “specifically denounce these abuses and mandate comprehensive measures to investigate and prevent further violations linked to the sale, export, and use of Pegasus spyware and cases of targeted surveillance”.

The letter accuses the NSO Group of sticking to a false claim that Pegasus spyware is only used for legitimate purposes like investigating crime and terror despite mounting evidence of the spyware’s links to human rights abuses. “The secretive surveillance industry must be held to account,” the letter said. 

It also recommended that HRC must offer “adequate financial and technical support to the U.N. Special Procedures, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and any other bodies relevant and able to execute the necessary inquiries”. The findings should then be reported to the HRC and the U.N. General Assembly. 

“We reiterate the previous call made by U.N. human rights experts and civil society groups on governments to immediately implement a global moratorium on the sale, export, transfer, and use of private surveillance technology until countries have adopted robust legal safeguards to protect individuals from unlawful surveillance, invasion of their privacy, and threats to their freedom of expression, assembly, and association,” the letter said. 

The Pegasus Project, an investigation by a consortium of 17 media organisations led by Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, has severe ramifications on issues pertaining to privacy and surveillance around the world. It should be noted that the spyware is classified as a cyber weapon to be sold exclusively to government clients, according to the NSO Group. The companies selling these surveillance technologies often operate in a hushed manner with little to no oversight. 

Incidents of surveillance cited by civil society groups

The organisations said that they were concerned by the Pegasus Project’s revelations in which journalists were found to be among the major targets of the spyware. Here are a few instances of surveillance mentioned in the letter: 

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  • An investigation by media organisation Direkt36 and forensic analysis by Citizen Lab found that two Budapest-based photojournalists’ phones were hacked by a government client of the NSO in early July 2021. Earlier, two of Direkt36’s investigative journalists, András Szabó and Szabolcs Panyi, and another investigative reporter, Brigitta Csikász, were targeted by Pegasus spyware.
  • The phones of three French journalists—Lénaïg Bredoux, Edwy Plenel, and a senior member of staff at France 24 were found to be infected with Pegasus, according to the National Cybersecurity Agency of France (ANSSI) 
  • Friends and family members of the murdered Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, were also targeted with Pegasus spyware before and after his murder, affirmed the letter. The iPhone of Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, was targeted and successfully infected four days after his assassination. Forensics checks also confirmed that his wife Hanan Elatr was targeted with the spyware, as was his friend, and former director-general of Al Jazeera Wadah Khanfar
  • At least 35 journalists were selected for potential targeting with Pegasus by the Moroccan authorities. 

The civil society groups also said that this is not the first time the NSO’s Pegasus spyware was linked to human rights abuses. Citizen Lab documented one of the early uses of Pegasus by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to spy on prominent Emirati human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor in 2016. 

“The failure of States to protect people’s rights and uphold their obligations has fostered a culture of total impunity and allowed private digital surveillance companies as perpetrators of human rights violations to flourish with no transparency or accountability,” the letter asserted.

UN High Commissioner remarks on Pegasus

UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet said that her office was not surprised by recent revelations documenting the widespread use of the Pegasus spyware while speaking to the European Union’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights. 

“The targeting of human rights defenders, journalists and politicians is just another example of how tools allegedly meant to address security risks can end up being weaponized against people with dissenting opinions,” Bachelet said at the committee’s hearing on the implications of the Pegasus spyware. She asked for a moratorium while demanding a thorough investigation into allegations of surveillance. 

Use of Pegasus in India

The net of the victims of the alleged spyware attack using Pegasus features more than 300 Indians according to The Wire. Many of them are journalists, politicians, academicians, bureaucrats, security officials, and businessmen.  Some of the names include:

  • MK Venu
  • Sushant Singh
  • Siddharth Varadarajan
  • Paranjoy Guha Thakurta
  • Rohini Singh
  • Rahul Gandhi
  • Prashant Kishor
  • Abhishek Banerjee
  • Ashwini Vaishnaw
  • Ashok Lavasa
  • Rona Wilson
  • Sudha Bhardwaj
  • Soni Sori
  • Umar Khalid 
  • Bela Bhatia
  • Jagdeep Chhokar
  • Gagandeep Kang
  • Alok Verma
  • Kumaresan

The Union government has consistently avoided confirming that it licensed Pegasus. Moreover, it has dismissed the allegations as exaggerated and sensational. It has also not initiated any investigation into the purported surveillance causing outrage among the opposition and civil society. 

There are nine petitions filed before the Supreme Court of India which is set to pass interim orders in which it will set up a committee of experts to investigate the circumstances surrounding the spyware, following a hearing on September 13. 

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