A little over a year ago, the Canadian non-profit Citizen Lab released a damning report into the activities of NSO, an Israeli software development company. NSO makes a programme called Pegasus, which it sells to governments. This programme is a powerful surveillance tool, allowing governments to spy on smartphones that have been infected with the Pegasus spyware.
Citizen Lab’s research discovered infected devices have been traced to 45 countries, including some of the world’s worst human rights violators, such as Saudi Arabia. Infected devices were also discovered in South Africa. The alleged purpose of the programme is to prevent criminal activity, but many of the devices belonged to journalists and human rights defenders.
This week, Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, announced that it would be suing NSO over what it describes as violations of United States law, as well as WhatsApp’s terms of service (NSO denies any wrongdoing).
“This should serve as a wake-up call for technology companies, governments and all internet users. Tools that enable surveillance into our private lives are being abused, and the proliferation of this technology into the hands of irresponsible companies and governments puts us all at risk,” said Will Cathcart, the head of WhatsApp.
Facebook and WhatsApp (which Facebook owns) may appear to be unlikely privacy campaigners, given Facebook’s record of harvesting and selling user data. But what is at stake now is whether governments should be allowed to spy on their citizens with impunity. The answer must be a definitive no.
Software that allows governments access to the electronic communications of its citizens is a gross violation of the right to privacy, and fundamentally compromises the ability of journalists and human rights defenders to hold authorities to account. Any challenge to the likes of NSO and Pegasus can only be good for democracy — even if it comes from an unlikely source.