The apparent use of the Pegasus software to spy on journalists, human rights defenders, politicians and others in a variety of countries is "extremely alarming" and the States concerned should take steps to protect against such "invasions" of privacy, the UN high commissioner for human rights said on Monday.
Politicians, rights activists and journalists were among those targeted in several countries including India, with a phone spyware sold to various governments by an Israeli firm, according to an international media consortium.
In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said governments should immediately "cease their own use of surveillance technologies" in ways that violate human rights, and should take concrete actions to protect against such "invasions" of privacy by regulating the distribution, use and export of surveillance technology created by others.
"Revelations regarding the apparent widespread use of the Pegasus software to spy on journalists, human rights defenders, politicians and others in a variety of countries are extremely alarming, and seem to confirm some of the worst fears about the potential misuse of surveillance technology to illegally undermine people's human rights," Bachelet said.
Media reports on Sunday claimed that spyware Pegasus was used to conduct surveillance on about 300 Indians, including ministers, political leaders, government officials and journalists.
The Indian government has categorically rejected the attack on it by the opposition parties in the wake of the snooping row, saying attempts were being made to "malign" Indian democracy.
Bachelet said various parts of the UN Human Rights system have repeatedly raised serious concerns about the dangers of authorities using surveillance tools from a variety of sources.
"Use of surveillance software has been linked to arrest, intimidation and even killings of journalists and human rights defenders. Reports of surveillance also have the invidious effect of making people censor themselves through fear," she said.
Bachelet said journalists and human rights defenders play an indispensable role in societies, and when they are silenced, everyone suffers.
"I would like to remind all states that surveillance measures can only be justified in narrowly defined circumstances, with a legitimate goal. And they must be both necessary and proportionate to that goal," she said.
Referring to the reports, the UN high commissioner for human rights said, "If the recent allegations about the use of Pegasus are even partly true, then that red line has been crossed again and again with total impunity."
She said companies involved in the development and distribution of surveillance technologies are responsible for avoiding harm to human rights and they need to take immediate steps to mitigate and remedy the harms their products are causing or contributing to.
"In addition to immediately stopping their own role in violations of human rights, States have a duty to protect individuals from abuses of the right to privacy by companies," she said.
"One key step to effectively prevent abuse of surveillance technology is for States to require by law that the companies involved meet their human rights responsibilities, are much more transparent in relation to the design and use of their products, and put in place more effective accountability mechanisms," she added.
The UN high commissioner said that these reports also confirm the urgent need to better regulate the sale, transfer and use of surveillance technology and ensure strict oversight and authorisation.
"Without human rights-compliant regulatory frameworks there are simply too many risks that these tools will be abused to intimidate critics and silence dissent," she said.
"Governments should immediately cease their own use of surveillance technologies in ways that violate human rights, and should take concrete actions to protect against such invasions of privacy by regulating the distribution, use and export of surveillance technology created by others, she added.