David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, submitted his recommendations in a report published to the UN Human Rights Council, which will open a three-week session next week.
The world should impose a moratorium on the sale and use of surveillance software until there are rules in place to stop governments using it to spy on opponents and critics, a UN expert recommended.
David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, submitted his recommendations in a report published on Tuesday to the UN Human Rights Council, which will open a three-week session next week.
Kaye said he had received detailed testimony about governments using spyware developed and supported by private companies, but the market was shrouded in secrecy.
"Surveillance of specific individuals – often journalists, activists, opposition figures, critics and others exercising their right to freedom of expression – has been shown to lead to arbitrary detention, sometimes to torture and possibly to extrajudicial killings," he wrote.
"States should impose an immediate moratorium on the export, sale, transfer, use or servicing of privately developed surveillance tools until a human rights-compliant safeguards regime is in place."
Kaye cited the examples of Pegasus spyware, produced by Israel's NSO Group, which he said had been identified as being used to target individuals in 45 countries, and FinSpy, also known as FinFisher, produced by German-British Gamma Group.
Gamma Group did not immediately comment.
NSO Group said its technology was a vital tool to save lives and stop terrorists and criminals who used encrypted technology, and all companies providing such services had an obligation to ensure ethical use of their technology.
"It is not a tool to be weaponised against human rights activists or political dissidents," NSO said in an emailed response.
"That’s why there is such a high bar for ever becoming a licensed customer."
In his report, Kaye said government oversight of spyware "hardly exists", and there was an "extraordinary risk of abuse".
Governments were conducting surveillance without fear of any legal consequence, and companies were failing to meet the most basic principles of protecting the human rights of people affected by their products and services.
"Digital surveillance is no longer the preserve of countries that enjoy the resources to conduct mass and targeted surveillance based on in-house tools.
Private industry has stepped in, unsupervised and with something close to impunity."