Submission of the Citizen Lab to the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression

In 1993, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights established the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The current Special Rapporteur is Mr. David Kaye.

Mr. Kaye recently issued a call for submissions on the topic of the surveillance industry and human rights. The call noted that government and non-governmental actors have increasingly used digital surveillance technologies to undermine human rights and sought information on regulatory frameworks for surveillance technologies, on the use of surveillance technologies against individuals and civil society, and on the policies and practices of private companies in this industry.

Over the years, Citizen Lab research has documented the abusive deployment of spyware manufactured and sold by private companies. Our submission first provides a review of our technical research into the application of sophisticated spyware technology sold by NSO Group Technologies Ltd., Cyberbit Ltd., FinFisher GmbH, and Hacking Team S.r.l (a subset of our research on targeted digital threats). Based on this research, and investigations by other organizations into the spyware industry, we have identified a number of overarching practices of concern within the industry that we believe urgently need to be addressed:

  1. The apparently unchecked sale of spyware to authoritarian and repressive governments with poor human rights records;
  2. The justification of such sales by private companies on the basis that they sell exclusively to sovereign nations and with the sole purpose of clients engaging in lawful use;
  3. A non-transparent business environment which insulates companies in the industry from public scrutiny and effective regulation; and,
  4. Private companies in this industry operating in violation of norms and rights set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

In order to assist the Special Rapporteur, we have also articulated a number of recommendations which we hope will inform the Special Rapporteur’s forthcoming report. These recommendations stress the importance of continued support for research into the spyware industry and the need to identify and define high priority practices of concern within the industry, as well as the broader aims of industry reform. Further, we recommend that the Special Rapporteur issue a report describing a comprehensive accountability framework that considers the effectiveness and changes necessary to all available mechanisms for ensuring accountability (e.g. regulation, litigation, due diligence requirements for companies, and export controls) and call on States to do more to protect against human rights in this area with specific actions that should be taken.

The full report can be found here.