Sale of spyware to authoritarian regimes stifles journalism, US media firm reports

THE increased sale of commercial spyware to repressive governments globally has put independent journalists in danger of invasive surveillance and harassment.

This was reported in a study by the US-based Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), which also stated that the use of spyware against journalists had reinforced self-censorship and created operational strains for news outlets.

“The reckless and abusive use of commercial spyware to target journalists and their associates, increases the risks journalists face worldwide.

“Thanks to companies like NSO Group, unscrupulous dictators and autocrats who now have a powerful tool to aid in their sinister aims to stifle dissent and quell controversial reporting,” the study stated.

Seven spyware companies identified in the report had sold their spyware products to 33 countries across four continents.

They included: NSO Group which designed Pegasus, Darkmatter, Hacking Team, Gamma Group, Mollittiam Industries, Cyberbit and Candiru.

The Nigerian Government is believed to have purchased the FinSpy from Gamma Group based in Germany and the Remote Control System (RCS/Da Vinci) made by the Hacking Team in Italy.

A report by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab revealed that Nigeria’s Defence Intelligence Agency had, in 2015, acquired FinSpy spyware equipment to spy on citizens’ calls and text messages.

“Two FinFisher spyware systems were imported without the proper authorisations from Nigeria’s Office of the National Security Adviser,” the report added.

The FinFisher is used to exploit a vulnerability in WhatsApp’s application to spy opposition organisers in several countries.

Other countries that employ the use of these surveillance platforms in Africa are: Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Equatorial Guinea, Morocco, and Zambia.

The study identified that at least 180 journalists in 20 countries  were being targeted by dictatorial governments, using hacking software sold by the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group since 2016.

“The digital surveillance industry is a broad and largely opaque network of companies that produce technology to monitor and track individuals.

“Tools that surveil citizens’ social media profiles to devices that indiscriminately monitor the activity of nearby mobile phones, the range and sophistication of technologies available have never been greater,” the study read.

The study referenced the revelations of the Pegasus Project earlier this year, stating no single country confirmed that it used the NSO Group’s software.

A Mexican journalist Cecilio Pineda’s phone was selected for targeting weeks before he was killed in 2017. His death is being attributed to surveillance using the NSO spyware.

    The study also asserted that the Pegasus Project identified at least 25 Mexican journalists who were selected for targeting over a two-year period.

    However, NSO Group has denied the allegation, saying that if Pineda’s phone had been targeted, data collected from his phone would not have contributed to his death.

    The study said the expansion of the digital surveillance industry had enabled governments acquire new technologies to silence independent journalism and hinder investigative work that would uncover information withheld from public view.

    “The increasing use of spyware to monitor journalists and ultimately assist in their arrest or murder, because the use of commercial spyware also, has a ‘terrorizing’ effect, even when they are not directly targeted,” the study stated.

    Amos Abba is a journalist with the International Center for Investigative Reporting, ICIR, who believes that courageous investigative reporting is the key to social justice and accountability in the society.

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