(Open Doors) — Advanced malware is spying on thousands of journalists, politicians and humanitarian workers around the world.
Amnesty International and a consortium of media partners including The Washington Post just released a bombshell report exposing the world’s most sophisticated threat to human rights. The “Pegasus” spyware is capable of recording phone calls, capturing passwords, activating the camera and microphone, collecting messages and location data, and identifying whether the smartphone is moving or stationary. Though Pegasus was originally designed to monitor criminal activity, the usage data illustrates terrorists are not its only targets.
For those with even a cursory knowledge of geopolitics, the spyware’s list of clients is positively chilling. Of the 10 governments that reportedly purchased the tool, all have known histories of human rights violations and have repeatedly demonstrated their desire to suppress dissent. Five of those countries also appear on the religious freedom watchlist, a ranking of the worst religious freedom violators, which is compiled by the organization I lead, Open Doors USA. The Pegasus spyware is now a dangerous tool in the hands of malicious actors who wish to suppress dissent.
For anyone who cares about threats to religious freedom, the Pegasus Project exposes a startling development: Authoritarian states now have all the tools they need to surveil, target and censor religious minorities.
State-sponsored religious persecution has been rising in recent years. Government actors in China, India and Saudi Arabia have long sought to centralize their power by silencing their critics. Recently, a spate of emerging authoritarian states such as Hungary, Kazakhstan and Vietnam have followed suit. But the ability to prevent and even punish free expression on a mass scale has not been widely available before now.
In recent years, however, advanced technologies developed that were unimaginable even a decade ago. For authoritarian regimes, these tools are relatively inexpensive and easy to acquire. They can be quietly deployed and often leave little or no traces behind. Today’s science looks like yesterday’s science fiction, ushering in a new era of oppression not only for high-profile activists, but for anyone who owns a smartphone.
It’s no coincidence that established enemies of religious freedom are surveilling other sources of dissidence, too. In India — where non-Hindu citizens have faced a 300% increase in religiously motivated violent attacks — at least 40 journalists were targeted by Pegasus between 2017 and 2021. This is happening in a democracy with the freedoms of religion and speech written into its constitution.
In Saudi Arabia, a sovereign Islamic state, converts from Islam are forced to self-censor their expressions of faith or face arrest on false charges. When journalist Jamal Khashoggi freely expressed his criticism of the theocratic regime, he was assassinated. While the Saudi government has denied involvement in his death, the Pegasus Project revealed Saudi intelligence used the spyware to surveil people close to Khashoggi.
China created the pilot program with its detention of more than 1 million Uyghur Muslims. Facial recognition technology identifies possible targets to the Chinese Communist Party. Harvesting their smartphone data exposes any inkling of criticism that can warrant arrest, however unjustly. But those detained, like those monitored by the Pegasus spyware, are neither terrorists nor spies.
The result of these contagious tactics is the widespread criminalization of faith and dissenting opinion.
Kazakhstan has followed China’s lead into mass-surveillance technology. Kazakh officials used Pegasus to track government critics, and preexisting legislation restricts citizens’ ability to worship freely. These practices, when paired with frequent police raids on churches, demonstrate yet again that surveillance is the precursor to censorship.
While Americans are relatively protected from many of the rights violations endured abroad, our online activity contributes to persecution-enabling platforms. Government disinformation schemes exploit social media channels including Facebook and WhatsApp, as faith groups and news outlets become increasingly dependent on them. And the pandemic-driven rise in online church attendance further exposes people of faith to their persecutors.
Facebook has claimed to protect religious and political speech while filtering out fake news and incitements to violence. But the Pegasus Project reveals no online expression of faith is truly safe.
The world must redouble our commitment in pressuring authoritarian regimes to respect the free expression of religion and freedom of speech. For America’s part, we can look to President Joe Biden’s newly nominated ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Rashad Hussain. If confirmed, he will play a critical role in countering authoritarian governments that are infiltrating social media platforms and misusing technology like Pegasus.
But to be clear, government actors are not the only bad guys who must be held accountable. The tech industry, which is often willing to turn a blind eye in the pursuit of profit, is also complicit. Any company that sells surveillance tools to known violators of human rights should face consequences for doing so.
A worldwide coalition must issue a moratorium on the sale of such technology to governments that refuse to comply with international standards of human rights. Accountability measures must be established to ensure compliance, and violators must be severely punished. In light of the Pegasus Project, further inaction equates to censoring ourselves.
(David Curry is president and CEO of Open Doors USA, which advocates on behalf of those who are persecuted for their Christian faith. Follow on Twitter @OpenDoors. For more than 60 years, Open Doors USA has worked in the world’s most oppressive and restrictive countries for Christians. Open Doors works to equip and encourage Christians living in dangerous circumstances with the threat of persecution and equips the Western church to advocate for the persecuted. Christians are one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world and are oppressed in at least 60 countries. For more information, visit OpenDoorsUSA.org.)