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The spy who lives in my phone

The week in corruption, 30 July 2021

Image: Nazarova Mariia / Shutterstock

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Transparency Int'l

We recently learned that a dozen governments have availed themselves of highly sophisticated technology to spy on people they don’t like.

Last week, we gave a nod to investigative journalists – who were often the targets – and highlighted their crucial role in our cause, as well as the breakthroughs their work enables. This week, we look at what incriminated governments have said since the stories broke.

From authoritarian regimes to troubled democracies, the responses from these governments have been remarkably similar. Most have resorted to obfuscation and have denied using the spyware against journalists, activists and dissidents.

Two hands holding a phone with a blank screen,. the image is glitchy.

The Pegasus Project investigations show that the NSO group's spyware has been used by some governments to target journalists, activists and political opponents. One of the journalists targeted was crucial to uncovering the Azerbaijani Laundromat, which exposed Danske Bank’s role in moving suspicious cash used to launder Azerbaijan’s international image.

Nothing mythical about Pegasus

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s office dismissed the allegations, emphasising that their country is a “democratic state governed by the rule of law.”

Halfway across the world in India, the central government has labelled the Pegasus Project investigations as being “based on conjectures and exaggerations to malign the Indian democracy and its institutions.”

The official line has differed only in Mexico, where President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s allies and family members were reported as possible surveillance targets during his predecessor’s time. The President called the alleged spying “shameful” and said that the government’s contract with NSO Group must be cancelled, if it is still active.

This isn't the first time government surveillance made news in the country. Mexico’s civil society has decried the use of Pegasus since 2017. Allegations of corruption in the procurement of spyware – that cost US$300 million in taxpayer money – were also widely discussed during the 2018 presidential race.

Corruption in the procurement of spyware is not hard to believe. The former President of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, allegedly misused public funds to contract NSO Group’s services. He is currently on trial for unlawful wiretapping, but we did not hide our disappointment when he was cleared of embezzlement charges on a technicality in 2019.

There is no doubt that surveillance tech in the hands of governments who are already mistreating journalists and activists opens doors to corruption. They wish to further concentrate their power and to limit civil society’s ability to keep them in check. But they won’t succeed because we have the power of the people on our side.
Daniel Eriksson Chief Executive Officer, Transparency International Secretariat

However, it’s not all bad news. In Brazil, recent activism by civil society – including Transparency International Brazil – against the planned purchase of spyware seems to have borne fruit. The NSO Group has reportedly withdrawn its bid to provide services to a government ministry following the controversy over apparent irregularities.

Our colleagues in Brazil intend to remain vigilant to see that the ministry suspends its plan altogether. They are also calling on the authorities to urgently release an inventory of every spying tool currently in the possession of all Brazilian judicial and law enforcement agencies.

As we grapple with the new realities of the surveillance industry, we need to address the corruption and back-door deals that allow it to go unchecked.

In the coming weeks and months, governments who use public funds to purchase spyware with little to no accountability, to further constrain accountability, will have to answer many questions. The common good needs to be at the centre of the debate.

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