There is a growing marketplace of private spyware firms developing and selling sophisticated surveillance technologies to governments around the world. This multi-billion dollar industry is not yet meaningfully constrained by international regulations and is helping to facilitate physical violence, reinforce authoritarianism, and support political repression. From Pegasus spyware targeting human rights activists to malware targeting the Ukrainian infrastructure, these attacks affect every area of our lives and underscore the magnitude of the risks we all face – and the need for a global field of civil society organizations advancing threat research, advocacy, and accountability.
The Ford Foundation’s Dignity and Justice Fund, fiscally sponsored by the New Venture Fund, has launched a new funding initiative for spyware accountability with a founding contribution from Apple and additional contributions from Open Society Foundations, Okta for Good, and Craig Newmark Philanthropies, and more donors are expected to join over the course of the initiative. The funding initiative will last for at least the next five years and will primarily support civil society organizations working to investigate, expose, and prevent spyware and help bring accountability to global trade in surveillance technologies.
The funding initiative will deploy grants in several different ways, including through direct invitations to leading organizations modeled on the Ford Foundation’s Technology and Society grantmaking practice. The funding initiative may also run additional open requests for proposals (such as this one), as well as support convenings, research, communications, and other shared field infrastructure.
We know this work has real-life consequences for civil society. In recent years state and non-state actors have used spyware to track and intimidate human rights defenders, political dissidents, and environmental activists in virtually every region of the world. And every day these threats broaden and deepen. The Citizen Lab and Amnesty Tech first publicly spotlighted NSO Group, a major player in the mercenary surveillance industry. That company’s Pegasus spyware has been used in some of the most insidious attacks on human rights defenders. Researchers have linked Pegasus to hundreds of acts of physical violence. And it’s not just one company or piece of software - commercial spyware is a lucrative and growing industry. This new funding initiative will support a range of strategies toward effective accountability for the trade and use of spyware.
This initiative will be making grants for work on spyware accountability, and this is our first open call for concept notes. We invite concept notes from civil society organizations, journalists, and others who are looking to build and sustain their capacity to engage on this critical issue.
The goal of the Spyware Accountability Initiative (SAI) is to address the harms of the global spyware industry on civil society through regulation, litigation, research and investigation, and other means to ensure that governments and corporations cannot use spyware to harm or unjustly surveil the civil society organizations that aim to keep them in check.
SAI’s funding strategy will evolve over time. For this round of funding, we invite proposals to help build and sustain the capacity of organizations working on spyware accountability. This is a broad remit and future rounds of funding may be more targeted.
Areas of work that may qualify for funding include:
Threat intelligence and research capabilities focused on cyberweapons used offensively against civil society and social movements.
Building the organizational capacity of both existing and emergent civil society cybersecurity research and advocacy groups, and increasing field coordination.
Building the capacity of human rights defenders and journalists - individuals, organizations, and networks - to identify and respond to spyware attacks.
Coordinated sharing of information, research, and best practices to confront advanced threats among response organizations.
Advocacy or litigation strategies and interventions focused on the global spyware trade, use of advanced cyberweapons against civil society, and accountability of corporations responsible for the proliferation of these technologies.
Increasing awareness among investors, journalists, policymakers, and the general public about the global mercenary spyware industry.
Enabling civil society to more effectively partner with device manufacturers, software developers, commercial security firms, and other relevant companies to identify and address vulnerabilities as well as the design and implementation of protections that directly address the risks and harms of spyware.
Implementation, management, and use of technical infrastructure that takes advantage of threat intelligence to identify and contain targeted incidents, and that facilitate the sharing of intelligence across the field.
Investigation into, and support for the harms and consequences of, spyware. This may include: developing psychosocial support programs for high-risk individuals and organizations, understanding the longer-term harms that are experienced by individuals and organizations following targeted spyware attacks, and researching the impact of spyware technologies on democratic societies.
Support for additional safety and security measures directly related to proposed work in any of the areas of work listed above.
What is not being considered for this round of funding:
New end-user technology development (e.g., new secure messaging applications)
General training or capacity building that is not focused on countering spyware or targeted surveillance.
To submit a concept note, please click "Respond" and fill out the form. You are also welcome to upload supplemental materials but please ensure that the most important information in your proposal is included in the written answers as we cannot guarantee a review of all supplemental material. We strive to keep the concept note submission short as we anticipate a large number of responses. Applicants that move forward will be asked to provide additional information such as a full proposal.
Concept notes will be reviewed by a committee that includes the technical advisory council for SAI. New Venture Fund will make final grantmaking decisions based on recommendations from the Ford Foundation.
The final number of grants and grant amounts will depend on a variety of factors. We anticipate funding 10-20 proposals at $50,000-$200,000 each. Grant terms may be from 12 to 24 months. These ranges are subject to change. You are welcome to indicate flexibility around your budgets or timelines in your submission. Grants must be directly related to the work in the aforementioned scope and may be requested as project-specific, core, or general support.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who is eligible? Organizations (nonprofit and for-profit), and academic institutions are eligible but we anticipate the bulk of grants going to nonprofit civil society organizations. The use of nonprofit fiscal sponsors is also acceptable.
Are non-US organizations able to apply? Yes! Organizations based outside of the United States are encouraged to apply. We reserve the right to decline applications from locations where grantmaking is restricted by US law, such as those subject to US state department sanctions programs.
If accepted, when would my grant start? The grant start date can be on or after June 1st, 2023.
If accepted, will I receive a project, core, or general support grant? The scope of the grant must relate to the scope of the work noted here in this call for concept notes and the type of grant will be commensurate with that. For example, if your organization’s work is entirely related to spyware accountability, a general support grant is possible. If your organization has a program dedicated to something that falls within this scope, a core support grant is possible. If this is a new program or there is no specific program dedicated to this work, a project support grant will be possible. If you are selected to move ahead, we will work together to identify the appropriate scope of the grant.
Do you provide support for indirect costs? Yes. Indirect costs should be included in your total estimate. For restricted project support grants, the minimum indirect cost rate is 25%. Core and general support grants do not have a set indirect cost rate as such grants are unrestricted. Fiscal sponsorship is different from indirect costs, and depends on the relationship between the sponsor and sponsored project or organization.
If accepted, who will be managing my grant? Grants are funded and managed through the New Venture Fund as the fiscal sponsor of the Ford Foundation Dignity and Justice Fund.
How much funding is available? There is currently $11M available over the next five years and we anticipate multiple open calls for concept notes during that time. The amount granted from this specific open call will vary based on the proposals we receive.
How is this fund managed? Funding will be managed by the Dignity and Justice Fund established and advised by the Ford Foundation and designed to pool philanthropic resources to advance social justice globally. The Dignity and Justice Fund is a fiscally sponsored project of the New Venture Fund, a 501(c)(3) public charity. Ford staff has convened a technical advisory council for the SAI, which includes experts from civil society, academia, and the private sector. Current SAI advisory council members are:
Rasha Abdul Rahim, Director of Amnesty Tech at Amnesty International
Daniel Bedoya Arroyo, Digital Security Service Platform Analyst at Access Now
Ron Deibert, Professor of Political Science, and Director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, University of Toronto
Ivan Krstić, Head of Apple Security Engineering and Architecture
Paola Mosso, Co-Deputy Director of The Engine Room
Johanna Pruessing, Program Manager, Open Society Foundations
Additional advisory reviewers may be brought on to support this specific open call.
Do donors to this initiative decide who gets the grants? No, donors of the fund do not have decision-making power over the grantmaking of the initiative. Strategy and grantmaking decisions are made by the executive leadership of the Ford Foundation under advisement from the independent technical advisory council and staff from the Ford Foundation’s Technology & Society program.