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The implications of spyware and surveillance technology for anti-corruption activists

The capabilities of modern surveillance software allow for the monitoring and tracking of people on a mass and automated scale. Recent trends include “zero click” technology that allows spyware to be downloaded onto a device without the need for the victim to click on a link, and then provides unfettered access to the device’s camera, microphone, and other personal data. This unprecedented level of intrusion has been condemned as a breach of fundamental human rights, such as freedom of expression and privacy. Currently, there is little transparency regarding the development and acquisition of these technologies. Studies show that technology companies developing surveillance software are just as likely to sell this software to autocratic states and criminals as they are to democratic governments. This is a concern as authoritarian regimes frequently claim that journalists, dissidents and human rights activists are criminals or a national security threat to justify subjecting them to intrusive surveillance. Where civil society groups are targeted and intimidated by spyware, it reduces their capacity to hold governments to account and investigate cases of corruption, and it can lower political participation and undermines democracy.

21 March 2023
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The implications of spyware and surveillance technology for anti-corruption activists

Main points

  • Spyware is increasingly being deployed against civil society and journalists to monitor, intimidate them, and this can even lead to physical confrontations and arrests.
  • Surveillance also creates the pre-conditions for corruption through reducing accountability, political participation, and narrowing civic space.
  • Further regulatory controls can ensure that surveillance software is not used to illicit means, such as the EU’s Dual-use export control (2021) and the Wassenaar Arrangement.
  • Civil society also has an important role in ensuring surveillance software is not deployed for corrupt means, through their investigations, advocacy and close collaborations with the cyber security industry.

Cite this publication

Maslen, C.; (2023) The implications of spyware and surveillance technology for anti-corruption activists. Bergen: U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, Chr. Michelsen Institute (U4 Helpdesk Answer 2023:7)

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