Commercial Spyware and the Surveillance State

An increasing number of governments purchase spyware technology to track, monitor, and intimidate human rights defenders, journalists, and political dissidents. The spyware is known as a dual-use good, defined by the European Commission as a good that can have both civilian and military applications.

While governments contend that the software serves legitimate national security and intelligence gathering purposes, growing documentation has shown how governments are using digital spying tools designed for criminal investigations and counterintelligence to target human rights defenders and journalists.


In 2017, the Global Justice Clinic partnered with the Robert L. Bernstein Institute for Human Rights and Technology Law and Policy Clinic at NYU School of Law and with Amnesty International to launch a groundbreaking research project to investigate legal accountability measures to address the state surveillance of human rights defenders.

On March 1, 2019 the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law submitted a briefing paper on the spyware industry to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression. GJC’s paper, “Attempted Digital Surveillance as a Completed Human Rights Violation: Why Targeting Human Rights Defenders Infringes on Rights,” responded to the Special Rapporteur’s call for submissions concerning the surveillance industry and human rights. The Special Rapporteur, Professor David Kaye, will present a report on this issue to the UN in October 2019.

As part of its ongoing partnership with Amnesty International and the Bernstein Institute, the Global Justice Clinic is assisting efforts to hold the companies that produce malicious spyware accountable for the targeting of civil society actors and the resulting human rights violations.

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