An Israeli company that sells spyware to governments is adopting a human rights policy to prevent customers from abusing its technologies.
Whether the policy is anything more than lip service is the big question. For years, NSO Group has been accused of helping oppressive regimes spy on human rights activists, journalists, and politicians. Past activities tied to the company include developing spyware for smartphones that can track the device’s location, secretly snap photos, and record phone calls.
NSO Group claims its products have saved lives by helping governments identify and nab terrorists and criminal suspects. But on Tuesday, the company also acknowledged its spyware programs can be abused to commit human rights violations.
“This new policy publicly affirms our unequivocal respect for human rights and our commitment to mitigate the risk of misuse,” NSO CEO Shalev Hulio said in an announcement.
According to NSO Group, the company already vetted customers to prevent its spyware programs from falling into the wrong hands. But as part of the new human rights policy, NSO Group will now evaluate a company’s entire sales process and whether it contributed to any “adverse” human rights impacts.
Customers who buy NSO Group products will be contractually obligated to limit their scope to stopping serious crimes, such as terrorism, while refraining from using the same products to commit human rights violations.
NSO Group is pledging to investigate “well-founded” reports that claim the company’s products are being misused. It also created a whistleblower policy to enable employees to report any wrongdoing.
Still, not everyone is convinced by NSO’s promises. “The NSO policy comes too late for the scores of activists targeted by abusive governments using the firm’s spyware, including UAE activist Ahmed Mansoor who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2018,” Danna Ingleton, a deputy director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
“NSO has repeatedly tried to avoid accountability for their involvement in such flagrant abuses, so it is little wonder many are skeptical about today’s announcement,” she added.
Citizen Lab, a research group that’s uncovered NSO products spying on activists and journalists, also noted the company’s new human rights policy makes no explicit mention of stopping sales to oppressive government regimes.
“Their business operations are, by their own admission, severely restricted by secrecy and national security requirements that prevent even the most basic level of public transparency and independent outside accountability,” Citizen Lab director Ronald Deibert told PCMag in an email.
“Statements not backed up by actions are nothing more than mere window dressing. While from a PR perspective, these pledges make sense and will no doubt mollify anxious investors, on their own they will do nothing to prevent the serial abuse of NSO’s surveillance technology,” he added.
NSO Group announced the new policy months after a United Nations expert reportedly recommended the world should impose a moratorium on the sale of surveillance software until safeguards can be put in place to prevent human rights violations.
The Israeli company has been mainly connected to selling its products to government agencies in The Middle East and Mexico. But in yesterday’s announcement, NSO Group said it hired two former US Homeland Security officials, Tom Ridge and Juliette Kayyem, to advise the company on working with governments to fight crime and terrorism.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a direct comment from Citizen Lab.