“Extremely alarming” is how the human rights office of the United Nations is describing revelations regarding the widespread use of surveillance software to spy on individuals from heads of state to journalists.

The scandal was confirmed by Amnesty International, pointing to the possibility that several world leaders might have had their phones hacked using NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware.

The latest data leak uncovered by the Pegasus Project, a groundbreaking collaboration by more than 80 journalists from 17 media organisations in 10 countries and co-ordinated by Paris-based media non-profit Forbidden Stories,  revealed the mobile phone numbers of some familiar names among them 14 heads of state and government, including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Pakistan’s Imran Khan.

SA’s authorities were not aware Ramaphosa was a potential target of spy surveillance: 

Amnesty International’s South Africa Executive Director, Shenilla Mohamed, has called it an unprecedented revelation.

“There’s a need for urgent regulation to reign in the wild west surveillance industry. States must with immediate effect impose a moratorium on the export, use, sale and transfer of all surveillance equipment until a human rights compliant regulatory framework is put into place.”

According to the consortium’s reporting, the Pegasus malware infects electronic devices, enabling operators of the tool to obtain messages, photos and emails, record calls, and even activate microphones.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, pointed to the information as confirming some of the worst fears about potential misuse of surveillance technology to illegally undermine people’s human rights as calls for an international regulatory framework grow.

“We’re certainly aware of these reports. And, as you know, the UN has been calling consistently for better regulations of these cyber activities to make sure that people’s rights, including the rights of activists, the rights of journalists and others, are not violated. There are many bodies, of course, that deal with communications, including the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), on the one hand. There’s… and our own various technology offices, but you’ll have seen that the Secretary General himself has been calling for a greater sense of regulation of this system to avoid the basic loss of people’s rights from improper information sharing,” says  UN Spokesperson, Farhan Haq.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, along with Amnesty, has long warned that sophisticated spyware products marketed to governments to fight crime have been used to target the press, posing a severe threat to press freedom globally.

“NSO Group can no longer hide behind the claim that its spyware is only used to fight crime, so what we are asking for is very simple – that the NSO must immediately stop selling its equipment to countries with a track record of putting human rights defenders and journalists under unlawful surveillance,” adds Mohamed.

In a statement, the Israeli tech firm at the centre of these revelations, the NSO Group, denied the veracity of reports related to the leaked database – adding that numbers appearing on a list were in no way indicative of whether that particular number was selected for surveillance using their Pegasus software.

Despite that, the UN’s Michelle Bachelet warns that, in the absence of a human rights compliant regulatory framework, there are simply too many risks around these tools being abused to intimidate critics and silence dissent.

Reaction to leaked Pegasus project database compromising world leaders: