Sunday 4, June 2023

Govt purchase Israeli spy tech: Worries of fundamental rights violation

Time Digital Report: Bangladesh government purchased advanced spy technology named Pegasus from former commander of the Israeli intelligence’s technology unit last year, reports Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Tuesday.

Pegasus is a type of spyware that has the ability to infect a target’s phone without a malicious link, though that is one of the ways devices can be infected with the virus. Once Pegasus finds its way into a phone, operators of the tool can activate its camera and microphone, record phone calls, extract messages, emails and photos.

The tools was sold to the National Telecommunication Monitoring Centre, an arm of the Bangladesh home ministry that is responsible for tracking internet and social media use inside the country as well as for online censorship and eavesdropping on citizens, according to the Haaretz report.

Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) on Thursday expressed its concern over an international media report on the Bangladesh government's purchase of highly controversial surveillance technology from Israel.

People have the right to know the answer to the fundamental question that such a terrible tool was bought with public tax money according to which specific law and policy, for what purpose, in what context, in whose interest it will be used, said TIB.

People have the right to know the government's precise explanation regarding the purchase and use of technology that undermines the privacy, security, freedom of speech and expression of people's personal information and communications and, above all, threatens the lives and livelihoods of individuals, told TIB Executive Director Iftekharuzzaman.

Other surveillance technologies-

While Pegasus is currently viewed as the most effective and invasive spyware available for purchase, NSO Group is not the only company selling this type of surveillance technology.

Italian company Hacking Team and Anglo-German company Lench IT Solutions plc also develop and sell spyware similar to Pegasus and have been accused of providing tools to authoritarian governments that they use to spy on activists, journalists, politicians and dissidents.

There is also dual-use technology that is designed to be used by private companies in the telecom and internet service sector for network management, but also enables governments to block access to websites, and carry out mass surveillance, including by redirecting users to websites infected with malware. These technologies are being produced by companies such as the United States-based Blue Coat, and Canada-based Sandvine and Netsweeper.

Sandvine has sold its deep packet inspection technology to the Pakistani government which purchased it using licensing fees from telecom operators, thereby avoiding public scrutiny under the garb of it not being a burden on the taxpayer. Because it is a dual use technology, the government gets away with saying it is using the web monitoring system merely to monitor grey traffic. However, according to several rights organisations and monitoring groups, the technology is also being used to carry out surveillance and censorship of human rights movements in the country. Thus, investors, companies and governments need to consider the impact such dual-use technologies may have on human rights in countries they are being sold to.

Biometric and facial recognition technologies are also being used by governments for surveillance with extensive human rights implications. In the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in the United States, several companies including Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft banned Police departments from using their facial recognition technology. This was a move in the right direction, as these technologies, largely developed using white subjects, have a racial bias and their use by security agencies contribute to racial profiling and harassment of minorities. Companies need to follow this precedent and stop supplying these dangerous technologies to other governments as well.

Just last month, after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban got hold of US military’s biometric records of Afghan citizens who had been helping the US forces in the country. This demonstrates the irresponsibility with which such data and devices are handled by governments and militaries, and how much of a security risk they can pose. The Afghans whose biometric data has been leaked now face the risk of being targeted by the Taliban. US President Joe Biden’s proposed budget for 2022 include $11m earmarked for purchase of 95 more biometric collections devices like those now at the hands of the Taliban. It is time to revisit such decisions.

Surveillance and international human rights law-

The use of surveillance technology like Pegasus by governments to spy on private citizens undermine the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) the two main instruments that guide the laws related to human rights in all UN member states. Indeed, such surveillance activities clearly violate the right to privacy protected by Article 12 of the UDHR and Article 17 of the ICCPR, which states that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation”.

While many countries limit their citizens’ right to privacy in different ways often on the grounds of national security and counterterrorism – international law is clear that such limitations cannot and should not apply to the surveillance of the press, activists, and political leaders, as such actions undermine not only the right to privacy but other linked rights too. These include the right to freedom of expression and opinion protected by Article 19 of the UDHR and ICCPR, the right to freedom of association as protected by Article 20 of the UDHR and Article 22 of the ICCPR. Surveillance also affects vulnerable groups based on nationality, race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and religion, and may be in violation of protections against discrimination under Article 7 of the UDHR, and Articles 26 and 17 of the ICCPR.

Surveillance has a chilling effect on the freedom of speech, and often serves to silence people by creating the impression of being constantly observed. Whereas spying has always been a part of intelligence operations, digital spyware is way more intrusive by virtue of most of our communications and personal information being stored in our phones in this day and age of technological advancement. This is why domestic laws governing the use of surveillance technology by state and private actors need to be centred around international human rights law.


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