London / Beirut
9 June 2022
Bahrain: RightsCon flags urgent need for international action on digital rights
Participants at RightsCon (June 6-10, 2022), the ‘summit’ on human rights in the digital age have been exploring the challenges and opportunities of digital technologies. Private sector and state cooperation on digital rights can extend rights and social inclusion, including to marginalised communities. But they also target human rights activists with targeted surveillance and other measures that erode international human rights standards.
With the work of AccessNow and RightsCon in mind, Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (SALAM DHR) once again wrote to NSO Group. Its 19 January 2022 email stated:
Urgent – Query: NSO action in relation to human rights violations by Bahrain
Shalev Hulio, Chief Executive Officer,
Shiri Dolev, Chief Strategy Officer and President, and
Shmuel Sunray, General Counsel
Re: FrontLine Defenders report regarding use of NSO’s Pegasus to violation the human rights of a Bahraini woman human rights defender, Ebtisam al-Saegh, of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights
Dear NSO officials,
I am [removed]. I work with the mainly Bahrain-focused and mainly UK-based Salam for Democracy and Human Rights. It is an independent organisation. It is independent of all governments and works to advance the awareness and adherence to international human rights standards.
We have been alarmed in recent days at reports in the Guardian (newspaper, online edition), following those issues by the Ireland-based FrontLine Defenders that identify, following forensic analysis, NSO’s Pegasus as having been deployed on the private telephone of my colleague, Ebtisam al-Saegh. The Bahraini authorities deployed the use of the technology without regard to safeguards or obtaining an internationally recognisable judicial permit, based on likewise internationally recognisable criteria or processes that would sanction the interception and analysis of data from her handset and/or oversee and control the application of the technology and any criminal application.
You may have seen that a variety of public figures and bodies, from at least two United Nations Special Rapporteurs and the American Bar Association ,amongst others, have spoken out about this situation.
While it is undeniably a good thing that the NSO has an express human rights policy, its scope and application remains unclear.
(see:https://www.nsogroup.com/governance/human-rights-policy/ ). For example:
(1) Under III, NSO states that “Where we identify higher risks, we undertake enhanced due diligence and explore mitigants. If the risks are too great, we do not go forward.”
Accordingly please tell me what due diligence did you undertake in relation to Bahrain,its human rights record and on what basis did NSO sell its software to the Government of Bahrain (GoB).
(2) Under IV, NSO notes that “Our customers are required to notify us of any knowledge they may have regarding a misuse or potential misuse of the products which may result in human rights violations. [and that] We have an escalating set of remedies culminating in the termination of use of our products after a substantiated case of severe misuse, material breach of commitments or a refusal to co-operate in an investigation.”
Can you please tell me now what steps do you intend to take in light of the human rights violations committed by the GoB? I also urge you to confirm to me in writing that NSO will immediately terminate the use by the GoB of the Pegasus and any other analogous software the firm may have sold to the GoB.
(3) We are also aware that the Government of Israel (GoI) has been developing bilateral relations with the GoB. Did the GoI encourage, induce or force or even persuade NSO to override its own human rights policy in order to conclude the sale of NSO produce to the GoB?
I look forward to receiving confirmation of receipt of this message […]
On 19 January 2022, NSO Group acknowledged receipt of the messages. An email from its Whistleblowing account stated that “This is to confirm that your email dated January 19th 2022 was received, was forwarded to the compliance team and is being reviewed.We take your query most seriously. Your claims will be examined and answered as soon as possible.”
On 9 June 2022, SALAM DHR once again reached out via email to NSO Group. Its email stated, in part:
It is now 9 June, just short of five months since receiving your acknowledgement.
Can you please confirm for us now what concrete action your firm has taken to ensure its conduct is in line with international human rights standards, including those applicable to firms.
For example, has your firm revoked the use of your software by Bahrain or, indeed, any other country? Can you explain to me how your firm has changed its practices? Or do you remain committed to a business model, at the heart of which appears to lie the erosion of international human rights standards?
I look forward to hearing from you.
Speaking on 9 June 2022 with RightsCon host Melissa Chan, SALAM DHR Chairperson, Jawad Fairooz addressed the digital rights challenges faced by activists in Bahrain and across the Gulf. SALAM DHR’s film for RightsCon explores “Are human rights linked to “good governance”? Bahrain and the 2022 parliamentary elections”
SALAM DHR joins the scores of activists and organisations alarmed at the state-private sector nexus that erodes international human rights standards.
SALAM DHR joins RightsCon participants in calling for greater, enforceable national and international standards and regulation that promotes digital inclusion and rights; efforts to promote individual and activists’ digital resilience; and work to integrate intersectional perspectives into national and international cyber policy and practice. Just as we seek to hold NSO Group to account for its actions in Bahrain, we call for global accountability and transparency mechanisms for tech companies. We believe that a rights-respecting, inclusive, ethical and equitable tech future is possible – but we have to make it happen.
For more information, contact:
@JawadFairooz – Jawad Fairooz, Chairperson, SALAM DHR (Arabic, English)
@drewerydyke – Drewery Dyke, International Partnerships Lead (English, French)