In September 2014, a group of forty-three students were forcibly disappeared in Iguala, Mexico. The devices of a group of experts subsequently investigating this mass disappearance, including for possible governmental involvement, were targeted for infection with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. Evidence suggests that these spyware attacks “were clearly intended to compromise the privacy and integrity of the […] investigative process.” The spyware attacks against the investigators of this mass disappearance is only one illustration of the intimate link between spyware and human rights abuses. These abuses have included enforced disappearances, as spyware has facilitated states’ ability to conduct unlawful surveillance, track dissidents and their associates, and interfere in investigations related to disappearances.

Investigations by research groups such as the Citizen Lab and Amnesty International have uncovered that states around the world, ranging from Saudi Arabia to Rwanda, are using new surveillance technologies to monitor human rights defenders, journalists, and political opponents, among others. The global spyware industry which has contributed to the proliferation of these new surveillance technologies has been characterized as “out of control,” “assisting state suppression,” “undermining freedom,” and “a threat to democracy.” These new technologies have allowed states to expand their surveillance capabilities to an unprecedented degree, particularly through the ubiquity of cell phones and other devices that can relay information about a target’s location, private communications, and other activities. Technologies touted by activists, human rights defenders, and scholars as essential tools for democratization and the proliferation of human rights have thus been transformed into tools of oppression by this mercenary spyware. Without intervention, the use of spyware will only further proliferate and create an increasingly insecure world for human rights defenders, journalists, and government critics. 

The Citizen Lab welcomes the opportunity to submit to the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (“Working Group”). The Citizen Lab is at the forefront of investigating and reporting on abuses of mercenary spyware. Our submission highlights the capabilities of spyware and the nature of the spyware industry; how surveillance technology is used to violate fundamental human rights, and more particularly how it is related to enforced disappearances; and we provide recommendations for states, spyware companies, other businesses, civil society, and the Working Group.