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International body moving to restrict export of surveillance systems used to commit human rights abuses

The proliferation of private companies across the world developing, selling and exporting surveillance systems used to violate human rights and facilitate internal repression has been largely due to the lack of any meaningful regulation.

But a huge step toward finally regulating this billion-dollar industry was taken this week, when on Wednesday night the 41 countries that make up the Wassenaar Arrangement, the key international instrument that imposes controls on the export of conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies, released a statement describing their intention to finally clamp down on this trade.

The statement from the 41 countries finally recognises that surveillance systems "under certain conditions, may be detrimental to international and regional security and stability." Although this is a broad public statement, and we are still waiting on more details and specifications on what exact terms and definitions are used in the draft version, this is at last an international recognition that surveillance technology can have negative effects on society, and something should be done collectively. While tightening the export of these surveillance technologies will not stop regimes from committing human rights abuses and violating fundamental rights, it will make it more difficult for companies around the world to be able to sell mass and intrusive spying systems.

Concerns from government

The Financial Times on Thursday reported that Western governments were pushing for an international solution to the essentially unregulated surveillance systems and cyber security technologies, something which they feel may fit into the Wassenaar Arrangement. The report said that intelligence agencies were particularly concerned about deep packet inspection technologies, systems that allow for network management as well as spying and censorship, being used by other States to conduct espionage or thwart cyber attacks. This follows statements we’ve heard from the UK Government for several months, that it “agrees that further regulation is necessary."

The Wassenaar public statement also says that new export controls have been agreed in areas "including surveillance and law enforcement / intelligence gathering tools and Internet Protocol (IP) network surveillance systems or equipment".

The need for reform is urgent. Surveillance equipment sold by companies in many of the countries in the Wassenaar Arrangement have been used to monitor the communications of journalists, human rights defenders, and human rights activists in countries like Bahrain, Turkmenistan, Libya, Indonesia, and Malaysia. While this public statement is a welcome first step from a leading member of the international community, this should not lead to complacency from campaigners or from governments. What will really matter is the interpretation and implementation by participating states. As in most things, the proof will be in the pudding.

The difficulty, and promise

Discussing export controls in the area of technology is always an extremely difficult balance to strike. It is a rapidly changing and constantly evolving area, with some systems protecting the vital privacy of pro-democracy activists, human rights defenders and others across the world. Whenever governments make changes to these regulations, many within the global technology community watch with trepidation as they fear their ability to fight back against repressive regimes will be jeopardised and curtailed. Their concerns are real and justified, and should always be taken into account whenever changes are made to fast changing technology legislation.

However we have also established comprehensively through our investigations and our Surveillance Industry Index that hundreds of private companies are ruthlessly exploiting this sector, which currently has no effective system of establishing who is trading with some of the most repressive governments in the world. We cannot allow German FinFisher GmbH, French company Amesys, Italian Hacking Team, Israeli-American Verint or South African VASTech to operate with impunity, selling their technologies to a range of repressive regimes and dictatorships. A balance must be found.

There are many problems with the Wassnesaar Arrangement, one being that it is a 'closed shop' with no opportunity for non-governmental input or engagement of external experts. However, it is still one of many useful avenues with which to meet the problem head on. Change can come, but only with enough pressure from the public, civil society, and governments themselves when they realise action must be taken to ensure their own security and stability.

Let us be clear: export controls are not a silver bullet solution for the problem of surveillance systems. Subjecting surveillance systems to export controls is only the first step to implementing effective mechanism to control the trade. Implementation and ensuring that human rights concerns are given sufficient weighting in the license-granting process are much needed. And instituting a system for controlling the trade of these technologies does not in any way take any of the moral responsibility away from the companies that develop and sell these, nor does it allow for shareholders, boards and private investment firms to abdicate their responsibility and turn a blind eye to the fact their increasing profits are based on the suffering of those in oppressed regimes. However, it does crack open the door to further action, and that is an opportunity.

Hopefully, by openly and consensually agreeing that the lack of oversight on the export of these systems must change, governments are now finally putting the surveillance system sector firmly front and centre.