Norway will not divest investment in $2 billion 'surveillance portfolio'

News & Analysis
Norway will not divest investment in $2 billion 'surveillance portfolio'

An astonishing 13-page investigation by Osman Kibar at Dagens Næringsliv has revealed that Norway has invested over $2 billion in 15 companies that manufacture and sell surveillance technologies - and that the government has no plans to divest investments in companies that are complicit in human rights abuses abroad.

The Norwegian national pension fund (commonly referred to as the "oil fund") is the world's largest sovereign wealth fund. The author of the Dagens Næringsliv article explained to Privacy International in an email that the fund has decided to keep all its investments in the 15 companies partly or wholly involved in surveillance technology. Privacy International's Big Brother Incorporated investigation into the sale of surveillance technology has helped put this issue on the international news agenda and the uses of the technology is being increasingly scrutinised. The article explaines that "equipment from companies like Blue Coat, NetApp Fortinet have appeared in countries like Syria and Burma for filtering, monitoring and surveillance purposes. Amesys, owned by France’s Bull made a deal with Gaddafi for internet monitoring in Libya. The filtering equipment of Smartfilter, owned by McAfee, recently bought by Intel, has been used in Tunisia and many other Middle-Eastern countries. Comverse Technology owns Germany’s Syborg Informationssysteme, which sells surveillance technology to Norwegian public entities through Tinex, a local Norwegian supplier of military technology."

Some of the companies listed here have exhibited at the infamous ISS World conferences. Privacy International recently revealed that these conferences have previously been attended by the national security agencies of Bahrain and Yemen, the interior ministries of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and the intelligence agencies of Kenya and pre-revolutionary Egypt and Libya, to name but a few.

The fund's ethical guidelines preclude investments in companies that directly or indirectly contribute to killing, torture, deprivation of freedom or "serious violations of fundamental ethical norms". Investments in tobacco companies were recently banned for ethical reasons. However, despite the fact that many of the surveillance companies in question are allowing dictatorships across the world to maintain a stranglehold over free expression, smother the flames of political dissent and target individuals for arrest, torture and execution, the Norwegian government is turning a blind eye. Following the report, Secretary of State Hilde Singsaas stated that:

  • the ministry will not do anything special about these investments,
  • the guidelines of the fund will not be reconsidered, and
  • the ministry will not consider to exclude surveillance industry from its investments.

The pension fund needs to start abiding by its own stated ethical guidelines and divest all interests in companies involved in supplying surveillance technologies to authoritarian regimes. No democratic Western government should be investing in technology that facilitates human rights abuses - such an investment is not only immoral, it is also bad financial planning. As European citizens and institutions become increasingly aware of - and disturbed by - the unethical practices of the surveillance industry, we may well see share prices dropping over the next couple of years. Privacy International will be writing to the Norwegian Ministry of Finance detailing our concerns.