An independent UN investigator has criticised the British government’s decision to host a surveillance company whose technology is allegedly used by repressive regimes to intercept the private messages of journalists and human rights activists.
David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, who has called for a global moratorium on the sale of such technology, said democratic governments “should be outraged and should develop global standards for the exports of such tools” that respected the rule of law and human rights.
The Guardian revealed on Thursday that the government intended to host the NSO Group, a controversial Israeli spyware firm, at the closed Security and Policing trade fair in Hampshire next month. The decision has drawn criticism from lawyers, technical experts, human rights groups and a Labour MP.
The NSO Group will be among 300 firms that will exhibit their products at the three-day event, which is organised by the Home Office and the Department for International Trade. It opens on 3 March in Farnborough.
The British government usually invites about 60 delegations from foreign countries to the annual fair, where firms promote products such as surveillance technology and crowd-control equipment. In recent years, the fair has been visited by the repressive regimes of countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Kaye said: “Hosting trade fairs for the industry without disclosing steps taken to evaluate the human rights records of participants sends exactly the wrong message.”
Ron Deibert, the director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School, said the research facility had documented an “epidemic of targeted espionage against civil society” using spyware like that sold by the NSO Group, including against individuals in the UK, Canada, the US, and Europe.
Deibert said instead of hosting surveillance companies “to sell the very tools dictators have abused to illicitly spy on people living in their own country, governments that purport to uphold the rule of law and human rights – like the United Kingdom – should be taking immediate legal and policy measures … to rein it in”.
The NSO Group has denied allegations that its technology is used to target human rights activists and reporters around the world. It has said its software is intended to be used by law enforcement officials to target terrorists and criminals, such as human traffickers and drug smugglers.
It has said that use of its software has saved “thousands” of lives in thwarted terrorist attacks, and that it investigates allegations of abuse. It has said it is “committed to the proper use of its technology to help governments strengthen public safety and protect against major security threats”.
NSO is also reportedly being investigated by the FBI in the US, which is examining whether its technology was used to hack Americans. NSO has said it is not aware of the investigation.
The Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle called on the British government to bar the NSO Group from the fair, arguing that such firms should not be given a platform. He said: “Firms like NSO are implicated in enabling regimes across the world to hunt and spy on dissidents and journalists.”
For two years in a row, Russell-Moyle has been prevented from attending the annual fair. Last year, he was denied entry while he was a member of the parliamentary committee that scrutinises arms exports.
This year, he applied again but was turned down because he did not “meet the Home Office visitor criteria”. The government only allows official foreign delegations and commercial firms into the fair, barring the public.
Asked about criticism that it had allowed the NSO Group to exhibit at the fair, the Home Office said :”The government will do all it can to help keep British people and British interests safe in the UK and overseas.”
It added that firms who paid for stalls at the fair were told they could not expect to be able automatically to export products promoted at the exhibition and that the UK had some of the most stringent export rules in the world.
Rebecca Vincent, the head of the UK arm of the media freedom campaign Reporters without Borders, said: “The UK government should take a stand in demanding greater transparency and accountability of the surveillance industry, not hosting NSO at this event whilst continuing to turn a blind eye to its dubious practices.”
In a separate development, new legal filings by WhatsApp, the popular messaging app that is suing NSO in a California court, indicate that NSO has not responded to multiple attempts by WhatsApp to contact it.
In the lawsuit started last year, WhatsApp has alleged that NSO hacked 1,400 WhatsApp users over a two-week period in 2019, including dozens of journalists, academics, government officials and human rights campaigners. NSO has denied the allegation and said it would vigorously defend itself against the claim.
In legal filings on Thursday, WhatsApp described how it emailed NSO executives and its board of directors – Mickael Betito, Stefan Kowski, Omri Lavie, Stephen Peel, Gunter Schmid, and Gerhard Schmidt – but did not receive any responses. It also sought to serve its lawsuit to the executives in person and by mail, it said.
WhatsApp claimed NSO had missed a deadline to respond to the complaint, and had “refused to appear” in the litigation. NSO has not responded to a request for comment from the company or its board.
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