Apple partners with Ford Foundation to protect NGOs from spyware

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By Stephanie Beasley // 06 July 2022

A man uses a smartphone in front of an Apple store in Shanghai. Photo by: Oriental Image via Reuters Connect

Apple said on Wednesday that a previously announced $10 million commitment, along with any damages awarded from its lawsuit against an Israeli spyware company, will go to philanthropic fund supporting civil society groups that work to prevent cyberattacks on NGOs, activists, and others targeted by “state-sponsored mercenary spyware.”

The Dignity and Justice Fund, established and advised by the Ford Foundation, is a pooled fund that provides grants to groups focused on technology and social justice, among other areas. It is a sponsored project of the New Venture Fund, a U.S.-based charity that promotes equity both domestically and across global development.

Apple first unveiled plans to provide $10 million in cybersecurity-related funding to civil society groups in November but is only now disclosing details of how the money will be spent.

The tech giant filed a lawsuit against NSO Group last year after the surveillance company gave government clients full access to certain users’ iPhone data through its Pegasus spyware. Spyware is a type of software that can be implanted on a digital device and used to monitor a user’s activity and collect passwords or other sensitive information.

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Pegasus was used to target politicians and members of civil society organizations in the Catalonia region of Spain, where there has long been a movement for independence from the rest of the country. Those cases were first reported as part of an investigation by the Guardian and Spanish outlet El País in 2020. In Mexico, NGO health campaigners working on issues related to obesity and soda consumption also were targeted by state-sponsored spyware made by NSO.

The lawsuit is still pending. However, Apple has said that it will donate the proceeds from any of the unspecified damages from NSO to organizations that expose spyware, on top of the $10 million commitment.

Ford will work with its grantee Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto, as well as a committee of technical advisers, to identify how the $10 million grant can be used to help support emerging and existing organizations in the civil sector working on cybersecurity research and advocacy. The committee will include representatives from Apple, digital security advocacy group Access NowAmnesty International’s technology arm, Citizen Lab, and tech nonprofit The Engine Room.

Among the fund’s goals is to raise awareness of the global mercenary spyware industry among activists, investors, journalists, and policymakers.

“The sale and use of spyware and other cyberweapons against human rights defenders, journalists, activists, and dissidents is of enormous concern to the Ford Foundation. These weapons facilitate violence and reinforce authoritarianism and political oppression,” said Lori McGlinchey, the director of the Ford Foundation’s technology and society program, during a call with reporters.

She added that the foundation wants to “build on Apple’s commitment” and invites companies and other funders to also donate.

The Dignity and Justice Fund is expected to make its first grants in late 2022 or early 2023. In addition to supporting research and coordination among civil society organizations, these initial grants will also aim to support partnerships between civil society and the private sector to address cyber vulnerabilities and provide human rights activists with tools to identify and respond to spyware attacks, according to Apple.

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