The Government of Catalonia approved an agreement adopting a moratorium on the use of targeted digital surveillance technologies. This agreement makes Catalonia the second government in the world, after the United States, to implement concrete measures against spyware, in line with repeated UN recommendations to create a solid regulatory framework to prevent its negative impact. The Catalan Government approved today the implementation of the Geneva Declaration, an initiative promoted by the Government itself with the NGO Access Now to move towards the international regulation of these tools. The Declaration calls for the implementation of a moratorium on the export, sale, transfer and use of these tools until rigorous human rights safeguards are in place. Costa Rica was the first country to call for a moratorium in this area.

With this agreement, the Government of Catalonia aims to contribute to the global debate on the protection of human rights in the digital era in a context in which cyber espionage threats are growing, as demonstrated by the rapid increase in sales of targeted cyber-surveillance tools such as Pegasus or Candiru and scandals such as Catalangate. Several international organisations have repeatedly denounced that, despite the fact that digital technologies can strengthen democracy and human rights, the lack of regulation and control and the proliferating use of these tools represent a clear violation of fundamental rights, such as the right to honour or the right to privacy.

Such warnings have come from the Council of Europe, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and a group of experts appointed by the UN who, among others, have advocated establishing a moratorium on the sale and use of these technologies until a solid regulatory framework is created in accordance with international human rights standards to prevent their negative impact. According to the United Nations, Pegasus software is used in at least 45 countries on four continents, outside any legal framework, with the aim, among others, of spying on the opposition or political dissidents.

The US Government has also alerted of the risks of these technologies and, last week, in fact, went a step further and issued an executive order banning for the first time the use of commercial cyber espionage software that threatens national security and human rights worldwide. In an official statement, the Biden-Harris Administration warned of the use that has been made of these tools to selectively monitor citizens without legal authorisation not only by authoritarian regimes, but also by democratic governments.

Moreover, in April last year the Catalan Government already approved an initial agreement that foresaw the promotion of political, legal and investigative actions in relation to spying and intrusion into the privacy of political leaders, social activists, professionals and other members of civil society, such as that described in the Citizen Lab report that brought the Catalangate affair to light. Furthermore, the Parliament of Catalonia also expressed its support for the Catalan Charter for Digital Rights and Responsibilities, promoted by the Catalan Government with the participation of civil society.

US highlights Catalangate in annual human rights report

An example of the use of targeted digital surveillance tools to limit and violate rights is the Catalangate, a case that was uncovered following an investigation by Citizen Lab that broke just over a year ago. This is one of the most important espionage cases in the world against a specific political movement, the Catalan independence movement, in which at least 65 people have been spied on with Pegasus, including the President of the Government of Catalonia, MPs, politicians, journalists, activists and lawyers.

The US State Department has actually highlighted the Catalangate case in its 2022 annual human rights report, published this March. The document, which covers Spain's human rights practices, sets out the data provided by Citizen Lab and the profile of the people spied on in the context of the independence movement between 2017 and 2020, and recalls that the then director of the Spanish National Intelligence Centre (CNI), Paz Esteban, reportedly acknowledged in Congress that the CNI had accessed the mobile phones of 18 pro-independence leaders, claiming that they had the necessary judicial authorisations to do so.

The Geneva Declaration

Last September, in the wake of the Pegasus espionage case, the Catalan Government promoted the Geneva Declaration on Targeted Surveillance and Human Rights, together with the NGO Access Now, to move towards international regulation of cyber-surveillance technologies. Taking into account the recommendations of UN experts to achieve a global moratorium on spyware technology and the diligent work of civil society, the Geneva Declaration is a collective commitment to human rights in the digital age and to stop the proliferating use of surveillance technologies.

The Declaration, which has already been joined by international stakeholders such as Amnesty International, is open for signatures, and institutions, the academic community and human rights associations are invited to join the initiative by signing here.