Spyware is a huge threat to global human rights and democracy, warns expert

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The mercenary spyware industry represents “one of the greatest modern threats to civil society, human rights and democracy,” a leading cybersecurity expert warns, as countries grapple with the unregulated spread of powerful and invasive surveillance tools.

Ron Diebert, professor of political science at the University of Toronto and head of the Citizen Lab, will testify before a Canadian parliamentary committee on Tuesday afternoon about the growing threat he and others believe technology poses to citizens and democracies.

In prepared remarks shared with the Guardian ahead of his testimony to a Canadian parliamentary committee, Diebert warned that the software used by law enforcement agencies and autocratic regimes was akin to a “wiretapping on steroids”, with little formal oversight.

Related: ‘Asleep at the wheel’: Canada’s police spyware admission raises alarm

In June, Canada’s federal police agency admitted to using powerful spyware technology. The tools, which have been used in at least 10 investigations between 2018 and 2020, give police access to text messages, emails, photos, videos, audio files, calendar entries and accounts. The software can also remotely turn on the camera and microphone of a suspect’s phone or laptop.

Civil rights groups condemned the police’s use of the technology as “deeply dangerous”, and the revelation prompted the House of Commons ethics and privacy committee to call for summer studies into the matter.

Diebert has previously briefed senior government officials in Canada and other democracies on the risks posed by the technology and the need for safeguards to regulate its use.

Last year, a collaborative investigation between the Guardian and other major international outlets, called the Pegasus Project, revealed that spyware licensed by Israeli firm NSO Group had been used to hack smartphones belonging to journalists, lawyers and human rights activists. On Monday, the RCMP told the committee they have never used the Pegasus software.

The brazen targeting of activists and journalists, as well as unanswered questions about potential national security risks, has prompted some governments to begin limiting the spread of the technology.

In 2021, the US Commerce Department announced that it had placed mercenary spyware companies such as NSO on the country’s Entity List, effectively blacklisting them for their “malicious cyber activities” amid growing concerns from US officials that the software posed a serious risk to national security.

By contrast, Canadian authorities have shown little appetite to take similar measures, said Deibert, who has briefed senior Canadian officials in successive governments.

“Despite the nuclear capabilities of such spying programs, it is notable that there has been zero public debate in Canada prior to the RCMP’s (or other [law enforcement] agencies) use of this type of technology,” he wrote in his notes.

Deibert, who will speak at 3 p.m. EST, is expected to make a series of recommendations, including regulatory penalties for firms known to facilitate human rights abuses abroad, lifetime bans from working with mercenary spyware firms for former Canadian intelligence and law enforcement employees. agencies, and develop clear guidelines for procurement.

The hearings will last two days. On Monday, Minister of Public Security Marco Mendicino defended the use of the spyware.

“There are strict requirements in the Criminal Code that require accountability, including what facts the RCMP will rely on before judicially approving this type of technique. There are other safeguards to ensure that only designated agents make these applications to court,” he told parliament.

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