The Third Summit for Democracy & Commitment to Counter Misuse of Commercial Spyware

 By Govind Nelika
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The Third Summit for Democracy & Commitment to Counter Misuse of Commercial Spyware

Abstract

The Third Summit for Democracy took place between 18th to 20th March 2024, showcasing discussion on AI and its implication on Human Rights, however, the summit also saw a Joint commitment by member countries to have a joint front against the proliferation and Misuse of Commercial Spyware. This article will attempt to analyse why this new milestone is far more significant than it appears to be.

Keywords: Summit of Democracy, Spyware, Misinformation, AI Human Right Violations

Introduction

            The Summit of Democracy is an annual event which began in 2021, the initial summit aimed at facilitating a unified front focusing on the following aspects and has grown since (State, n.d.).

  1. Defending against authoritarianism 
  2. Addressing and fighting corruption 
  3. Promoting respect for human rights 

The third summit for Democracy, 2024 was hosted by South Korea, where South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol in his inaugural address stressed the implication of “Fake news, disinformation, Implications of AI and the Digital threats to democracy”. In addition, the address by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasised the need to “ensure technology that sustains and supports democratic values and norms” (Park, 2024).

The summit discussed issues ranging from the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War and reiteration of Washington’s stance on alleged Russia and China’s global misinformation campaigns. As expected Seoul faced flak from China for inviting the Taiwan Digital Minister Audrey Tang. Beijing’s spokesperson Lin Jian responded to Taiwan’s participation as “efforts to expand the space for Taiwan independence activities under the banner of democracy and human rights were doomed to fail” (Ju-min Park, 2024) another spokesperson called out the ongoing double standard by the United States depicting pro-China content as misinformation and anti-China information as genuine. While several points ranging from responsible usage of AI to Digital threats to democracy and implications of misinformation and its inference on human rights violations were discussed, the summit has been criticised for evoking meaningful commitments and bringing forth change, nudging at some member countries attending the summit of harbouring authoritarian tendencies.

Statement to Counter the Proliferation and Misuse of Commercial Spyware

            The summit showcased a Joint Statement by 11 countries namely Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Republic of Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It focused on the misuse of commercial spyware, in authoritarian regimes and democracies, utilized to target journalists and opposition parties to intimidate, monitor, or suppress dissent. The summit viewed these actions as restricting freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and by association enabling abuse and human rights violations. Further commercial spyware is used for tracking or targeting individuals without appropriate legal authorization, safeguards, or oversight (Spokesperson, 2024).

            In an effort to prevent such practices, the member countries issued a joint statement adhering to the following:-

  1. Working within our respective systems to establish robust guardrails and procedures to ensure that any commercial spyware use by our governments is consistent with respect for universal human rights, the rule of law, and civil rights and civil liberties.
  2. Preventing the export of software, technology, and equipment to end-users who are likely to use them for malicious cyber activity, including unauthorized intrusion into information systems, in accordance with our respective legal, regulatory, and policy approaches and appropriate existing export control regimes.
  3. Robust information sharing on commercial spyware proliferation and misuse, including to better identify and track these tools.
  4. Working closely with industry partners and civil society groups to inform our approach, help raise awareness, and set appropriate standards, while also continuing to support innovation; and
  5. Engaging additional partner governments around the world, as well as other appropriate stakeholders, to better align our policies and export control authorities to mitigate collectively the misuse of commercial spyware and drive reform in this industry, including by encouraging industry and investment firms to follow the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

While the ongoing implication of spyware is a genuine cause of concern and instances of regimes using it as a tool of surveillance are large, in 2023 alone, it had come to light that former Egyptian MP Ahmed Eltantawy, (Marczak, 2023) found himself in the crosshairs of a sophisticated cyber intrusion when he became the target of Cytrox’s Predator spyware. He became the target of said intrusion weeks after he declared his candidature for the upcoming Presidential Election in 2024. Such incidents are occurring on a huge scale almost daily and pose a grave security concern not only for individuals but organizations, establishments and countries.

Conclusion

            While the Summit for Democracy initiated by the U.S is indeed a need of the hour and countries should put in place checks and balances to counter the use of spyware, the existing stance on whether a country should employ spyware on a case by case basis may fall under the purview of National Security and as per the UN charter specifically Article 2 (7) international organization or countries cannot “intervene in matters which are within the domestic jurisdiction of any State”. An example can be  Israel, a country continuously criticized for its surveillance apparatus in Gaza, however, given its security concerns such a step would be justified.

            The Snowden leaks of 2013 were indeed a revelation of how the NSA had been conducting surveillance of entities internally and externally, and the same practice is said to be followed by several other countries, to protect their national interests and safeguard their borders. The important question is, where does one draw the line, while the democracy summit does showcase powerful nation-states and their joint effort to counter the use of spyware, the challenge remains of whether they can adhere to the policies made, it has long been the nature of countries with broader influence to curb access of technology to developing countries, as a means to maintain the status quo. Existing criticism against the Western front by China stating bias and both sides accusing each other of Cyber Intrusion to surveillance, each employing tactics ranging from information warfare to grey-zone tactics, little can be done in terms of nation-states acting in their own Interest.

            The envisioned future of technology and unchecked IT infrastructure with vulnerabilities will undoubtedly see the application of AI and other tools to further violate human rights and as long as those who preach of Human Rights and those who wield authority are selective in their notion of what constitutes a violation of privacy or in what context is use of surveillance a necessity, the issue will never be resolved. Even more so the ever-approaching Quantum age will further see an increase in entities backed by nation-state actors who will focus their attacks in the cyber realm, the cause for concern is and will always be ever-evolving.

Works Cited

Ju-min Park, J. K. (2024, March 18). South Korea hosted summit warns of AI risks to democracy. Reuters: Retrieved March 19, 2024, from https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/south-koreas-yoon-warns-tech-threat-democracy-summit-2024-03-18/

Marczak, B. (2023, September 22). Predator in the Wires. Citizenlab:Retrieved March 19, 2024, from https://citizenlab.ca/2023/09/predator-in-the-wires-ahmed-eltantawy-targeted-with-predator-spyware-after-announcing-presidential-ambitions/

Park, J.-M. (2024, March 18). South Korea-hosted summit warns of AI risks to democracy. The Japan Times: Retrieved March 19, 2024, from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2024/03/18/asia-pacific/politics/south-korea-summit-ai-democracy/

Spokesperson, U. O. (2024, March 18). Joint Statement on Efforts to Counter the Proliferation and Misuse of Commercial Spyware. U.S Department of State:  Retrieved March 19, 2024, from https://www.state.gov/joint-statement-on-efforts-to-counter-the-proliferation-and-misuse-of-commercial-spyware/

State, U. D. (n.d.). Summit for Democracy 2021. State Government U.S: Retrieved March 19, 2024, from https://www.state.gov/summit-for-democracy-2021/