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SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

Spyware: An Unregulated and Escalating Threat to Independent Media

Wednesday , 25 August 2021

The digital surveillance industry is a broad and largely opaque network of companies that produce technology to monitor and track individuals. From tools that surveil citizens’ social media profiles to devices that indiscriminately monitor the activity of nearby mobile phones, the range and sophistication of technologies available has never been greater.

While their delivery methods and capabilities vary, all spyware products are designed to infect a user’s device and monitor their digital activity while remaining undetected. Typically, this means an infiltrator can covertly access a target’s phone calls, text messages, location, internet searches, and stored data. Even more troubling is the fact that most of the products are capable of evading antivirus tools that are specifically designed to detect malicious activity.

The rapid expansion of the digital surveillance industry has enabled governments around the world to acquire new technologies to monitor journalists, silence independent journalism, and control the flow of information. As of April 2021, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) had identified 38 cases of spyware targeting journalists, commentators, and their associates. The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab suggests the true figure could be over 50. There are reports of spyware targeting journalists working with international media outlets, including Al Jazeera and the New York Times, as well as reporters and editors working for the US-based Ethiopian diaspora outlet Oromia Media NetworkColombia’s Semana magazine, and Mexico’s Proceso.

In July 2021, French-based nonprofit Forbidden Stories, Amnesty International, and a consortium of 80 journalists from 17 outlets launched the Pegasus Project, a collaborative international investigative journalism initiative aimed at uncovering the extent to which Israeli spyware company NSO Group’s software is used by governments to target journalists, human rights activists, lawyers, and political dissidents. NSO Group’s signature product, Pegasus, named after the mythical winged horse, is one of the most powerful spyware tools ever deployed. Investigative journalists with the Pegasus Project revealed that at least 180 journalists were selected as potential targets of surveillance by government clients of NSO Group. The number of people who were attacked by the spyware infecting their phones remains unclear. NSO Group has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, claiming it sells software to carefully vetted clients to ensure its technology is used only for law enforcement and anti-terrorism purposes.

This is not the first time that NSO Group has been accused of abetting human rights violations. In 2019, WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against NSO Group, accusing the company of exploiting a vulnerability in the app and hacking into 1,400 accounts in 20 countries. More than 100 of these accounts are thought by WhatsApp to have belonged to journalists and human rights defenders, although the lawsuit did not disclose the identities of the victims. As a result of these allegations, the US Department of Justice reportedly renewed its investigation into the company in March 2021.

There is no question that spyware is being used by governments to identify, monitor, and ultimately silence journalists. Ronald Deibert, director of Citizen Lab, a research organization using digital forensics to verify the use of spyware against journalists, summarizes the danger this way:

“The reckless and abusive use of commercial spyware to target journalists, their associates, and their families adds to the numerous and growing risks that journalists worldwide now face. Media organizations and investigative journalists are valuable “soft” targets who control important information, including information on sources, that threaten powerful actors. Thanks to companies like NSO Group, unscrupulous dictators and autocrats now have a powerful tool to aid in their sinister aims to stifle dissent and quell controversial reporting.”

When the devices and digital accounts of journalists and their sources are vulnerable to surveillance, the ability of journalists to carry out their newsgathering function is significantly diminished. Journalists who fear they are a target of surveillance may self-censor. Credible sources may be less likely to talk to the press, and media outlets may struggle financially to keep pace with the increasingly sophisticated threats facing their staff.

The negative impact of commercial spyware on journalists’ safety is unmistakable, notably when the information spyware extracts promotes physical attacks or even murder of a journalist or source. However, spyware’s impact on journalists globally extends far beyond the journalists and sources directly targeted. As Forbidden Stories’ Laurent Richard and Sandrine Rigaud pointed out, spyware is an ideal weapon to “kill the story.” It’s a new tool that governments and other actors can use to harass and intimidate journalists and their sources to prevent the publication of information.

While companies and governments tout spyware products as essential to maintaining national security and combatting terrorism, evidence is mounting about how spyware is used to target journalists and others. According to David Kaye, former United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression, the largely opaque and unaccountable commercial spyware industry “is causing immediate and regular harm to individuals and organizations that are essential to democratic life.” In particular, he highlights its impact on independent journalists worldwide and how this violates internationally agreed human rights norms.

Spyware is likely to have a growing impact on journalists and news outlets due to its increasing sophistication and availability. A clearer understanding of how the technology threatens independent media can help encourage collaboration among media stakeholders and other human rights organizations to identify threats and combat them. Together, they can raise awareness of the issue, encourage regulation to prevent the spread of spyware, and strengthen litigation efforts when it is misused.

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