A CAUSE worth fighting for: Regulating the unlawful surveillance trade

News & Analysis
A CAUSE worth fighting for: Regulating the unlawful surveillance trade

Global problems require global solutions. One of the significant emerging threats to human rights and democracy today is the incredible and mostly unaccountable spread of surveillance technologies.

The rapid proliferation of these systems has created a shadowy billion-dollar industry, where companies sell spying equipment with impunity to authoritarian regimes, who wield them against journalists, political activists, and human rights defenders.

Given the scale and international scope of this threat to the enjoyment of rights everywhere, an international group of leading NGOs joined forces today to launch the Coalition Against Unlawful Surveillance Exports (CAUSE).

Privacy International is proud to be standing with Amnesty InternationalDigitale GesellschaftFIDHHuman Rights WatchReporters Without Borders, and the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute to hold companies and governments accountable for abuses linked to the fast-growing international trade of surveillance technologies. CAUSE members work in diverse areas and geographies, which forms part of our collective strength in calling for action from governments. The pooling of knowledge and expertise provides for even stronger advocacy, research and impact, as all members know how dangerous these tools can be in the wrong hands.

Governments need to begin regulating this trade by updating export laws, encouraging moral responsibility amongst private companies, and preventing their technologies from empowering dictatorships and oppressive regimes with powerful surveillance systems. CAUSE will pressure governments to control the export of these technologies from their countries, and work with them to to take action against this alarming industry.

Rights, and lives, at risk

Mass and intrusive surveillance systems allow for the blanket and secretive spying of an entire country’s electronic communications. If you are an activist that lives in one of the countries these technologies have been found in, such as Bahrain, Turkmenistan, Egypt, Morocco and Ethiopia, your emails, chat records, mobile phone and Skype calls, internet searches, and all your contacts are all accessible to the State.

These technologies enable regimes to crush dissent or criticism, chill free speech and destroy the fundamental rights that underpin democratic societies. The lives of brave people who stand up against injustice are put at risk, enabled by the technologies developed by these surveillance companies, who market and sell their equipment with little, if any, accountability.

While we understand that technology innovates at a rapid pace, governments must commit to keep these destructive technologies out of the hands of oppressive regimes and those that routinely and flagrantly violate fundamental human rights. There is an opportunity to address this problem by updating export regulations to reflect these new technologies and the threat they pose to human rights, and also to ensure that any trade is fully transparent and accountable.

The effect these technologies have on fundamental human rights must be brought before those who make and implement the laws. Although some governments are now beginning to discuss how best to restrict this trade, sustained international pressure from multiple groups, including those within the CAUSE, can keep this topic on their agenda and produce concrete changes in policy.

Taking action

Civil society has a role to play in providing governments and regulators with alternative solutions to the current situation, to input expertise on the capabilities of the surveillance technologies’ use in violating human rights, and to highlight through indispensible on-the-ground reporting the human rights situations in many of the countries that purchase these surveillance systems. Governments must acknowledge that industry self-regulation is simply unacceptable and oversight is needed.

The formation of the CAUSE builds upon the emerging research and advocacy on surveillance technologies and their effects on human rights, particularly over the past 12 months including:

Momentum is building as the surveillance industry is exposed. The time has come to put an end to this immoral and unlawful trade.