(New York, NY) — Sophisticated software purportedly designed to track international criminals and terrorists has been deployed to hack the smartphones of journalists, advocates, and human rights activists around the world. A consortium including Forbidden Stories, Amnesty International, and multiple news outlets, revealed this week that since 2016 the software sold by the Israeli cyber-intelligence firm NSO Group Technologies was used to hack hundreds of phones belonging to journalists, human rights defenders, and political leaders. Included are those of people close to slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and of Azerbaijan investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, convicted on bogus charges in 2015 and honored with the PEN/Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in 2016.

PEN America today demanded from NSO Group and its clients a full and complete accounting of how this software is being used to track and intimidate writers, journalists, and dissidents, and called on governments worldwide to abandon the use of surveillance technology to silence critics and to hold business globally accountable to the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. PEN America additionally called on all governments to curtail the development and sale of human-rights-abusive technologies by companies within their own borders and on companies themselves to refrain from developing or selling such technology.

“The depth and breadth of this extraordinary effort to spy on journalists and activists is an appalling example of the lengths governments will go to silence and intimidate their critics,” said PEN America’s digital freedom director Matt Bailey. “But it is also a reminder that these capabilities are too often developed and supported by a growing array of callously profit-motivated commercial providers who sell these dangerous technologies to whoever is willing to pay. As this revelatory reporting shows, even when activists and journalists thought they were far from the governments seeking to silence them, software embedded in their phones betrayed them, their colleagues, their friends, their families, and their sources. Surveillance like that enabled by NSO Group and engaged in by their clients globally casts a chill across free expression and the freedom to write. We at PEN America and our allies around the world condemn such acts, demand accountability and transparency—and commend the reporters and analysts who brought this to light.”

“It should come as no surprise perhaps that many of the countries that seem to be using this software to track their critics are those with track records of arresting and imprisoning journalists, writers, and public intellectuals,” continued PEN America’s Bailey. “As our annual Freedom to Write Index has illustrated, the number of countries imprisoning writers and critics is on the rise globally. This data is yet another illustration of how authoritarian and democratic governments alike are using increasingly sophisticated commercial technology to infringe on the human rights of their own citizens. It should sound alarm bells that corporate and state surveillance are joining forces to create ever greater threats against those who dare speak out.”