When launching Index on Censorship 50 years ago, our founder, the poet and novellist Stephen Spender, stated: “The world is moving in two directions: one is towards the narrowing of distances through travel, increasing interchange between scientists (who take a world view of problems such as the exploration of space, ecology, population): the other is towards the shutting down of frontiers, the ever more jealous surveillance by governments and police of individual freedom. The opposites are fear and openness; and in being concerned with the situation of those who are deprived of their freedoms one is taking the side of openness.”
This was written in 1971 – 36 years before the launch of the iPhone – and yet could easily have been written today, especially our increasing reliance on scientists as global citizens in the world of global pandemics.
But given the news this week about the reach of the spyware Pegasus we are reminded of both the advances of emergent technology and the ongoing determination of repressive regimes and hostile actors to use it against their citizens, to silence critics and to restrict media freedom. Those seeking to censor and intimidate in the 21st century may be using different tools, but the objective remains the same.
Pegasus, developed by NSO, is being used to extract information from the smartphones of its targets. In theory this technology was developed for use by the security services of those countries that have a positive human rights record. In reality it seems that the use of this technology is much more extensive and it is being used to target human rights defenders, civil rights activists and journalists around the world.
Using this spyware to undermine those who seek to uphold the liberal values we all hold dear is not only a breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – it is also an attack on every one of us who stands for those values.
The public exposure of the impact of this technology is investigative journalism at its best; the use of this technology by state actors to undermine their citizenry and core human rights is the new frontier in the fight against censorship and surveillance.
How we communicate with each other has evolved beyond all recognition in the last half century and yet we know that tyrants and repressive regimes around the world have the same objectives that they always have – to retain power by any means necessary, which is why they are using every tool at their disposal. Our job is to fight loudly and expose each attack on our collective human rights.
Index has always been on the side of openness and proudly (and loudly) taken a stand against repression. We continue that tradition today and stand with the journalists and activists around the world who are being targeted by repressive regimes – whether by Pegasus or any other technology.