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Wherever you go, they can follow: Modern surveillance technologies and refugees

Political activist and university lecturer Tadesse Kersmo believed that he was free from intrusive surveillance when he was granted political asylum in the UK. Instead, he was likely subject to more surveillance than ever. His case underlines the borderless nature of advanced surveillance technologies and why it represents such a massive problem.

In the past, those fleeing conflict or persecution could reasonably expect a degree of respite if they managed to escape their circumstances. However, the nature of modern surveillance and its ability to facilitate oppression has changed this. When it comes to surveillance, familiar concepts of borders and nation states are becoming increasingly irrelevant. For refugees, this has grave implications.

Forcibly displaced persons are among the most vulnerable in the world, and the potential for their continued harassment undermines their wellbeing and the basic principle of the right to seek asylum. On top of that, it also kills the potential for meaningful political organisation, empowers established powers, and also carries huge implications for asylum law in the UK and elsewhere.

Something old, something new

The implications surrounding the kind of surveillance conducted upon displaced persons by the global humanitarian and development community is not well understood, yet surveillance and monitoring of displaced persons is nothing new. They are accustomed to having every aspect of their lives monitored by a plethora of international aid and intelligence agencies. Whether it’s for their own welfare or to ensure security, their vulnerable nature and disenfranchised existence often puts them at higher risk of abusive or mismanaged practices.

The custom of monitoring refugees is also a staple of intelligence agencies in countries where they seek asylum. Refugees are highly valuable targets for intelligence agencies: they are simultaneously considered a threat and a huge potential source of intelligence. During the formative years of Britain’s security services, the UK actively monitored anti-Nazi refugees who had fled Germany and Austria during the 1930’s and 40’s, while today evidence points to persistent efforts by the security services to infiltrate diaspora groups and to recruit them as sources, sometimes using methods that amount to coercion.

While being subject to such surveillance may be a reality for many refugees, the problem with modern technologies is that it enables a far wider pool of perpetrators to engage in it - including the very actors a person is seeking protection from.

One of the main conclusions that can be drawn from the Snowden revelations is that modern surveillance is not confined within borders: technology has internationalised surveillance practices, and the law governing this is inadequate at best. Indeed, FinSpy – traces of which appear to have been found on Tadesse’s computer - proudly advertises on its brochures that when “installed on a computer system it can be remotely controlled and accessed as soon as it is connected to the internet/network no matter where in the world the system is based”.

More of the same

Authoritarian governments have a substantial interest in monitoring the activities of their ex-patriots, especially politically active ones.

This is because much political opposition in countries where opposition is suppressed are often forced into exile and to operate from abroad. To take the most prominent examples from the 20th century, the Russian, Cuban, and Iranian revolutions were in large part organised or were inspired by leaders operating from outside of the country. Anti-colonialist movements all over the world were also inspired and supported by functionaries operating abroad. Today, prominent political opposition movements operating abroad include Cuban and Iranian exiles, as well as countless organised groups fighting for political change in countries such as Eritrea, North Korea, Burma/Myanmar, Zimbabwe and Turkmenistan.

The desire for governments to monitor such groups is palpable, and indeed there is a long history of embassies and intelligence services being used by governments to monitor such perceived threats to its power. Ethiopia specifically has been accused of monitoring anti-government protests abroad, while it is a well established practice for some governments to exert pressure on diaspora groups through informal taxation levied by embassies.

In 2004, a case brought to the UK Asylum and Immigration Tribunal established that the Ethiopian embassy in the UK was carrying out surveillance on diaspora groups in order to monitor political groups. The case highlighted how embassy officials “actively cultivate links with resident Ethiopians in England and actively monitor their political activities. Until recently this activity was co- ordinated by a Major in the Federal Police who was appointed to the Embassy.” It further demonstrated how those suspected of supporting a party “are routinely harassed, arrested and detained for varying periods of time without being charged. Furthermore, a routine outcome of detention is mistreatment/torture.”

Watching from afar

The repercussions of enabling the surveillance of such groups with a relatively cheap piece of technology that not only targets a specific individual, but all their private and professional communications with others from anywhere in the world should be self-evident.

Such intrusive surveillance activity also has huge implications for asylum cases. If a government has access to the most intimate data on its diaspora, the ability for the government to target not only them but also their family and connections back home is manifest. In the case regarding the monitoring of political activities mentioned above, the Tribunal found that while they could accept that “the Ethiopian Embassy in London monitors the political activities of Ethiopian citizens resident in England, [they were] unable to accept that this means that the Embassy's officials are capable of monitoring the activity of every Ethiopian citizen.” The justification provided was that “Simple constraints of resources must inevitably mean that the Embassy will concentrate upon the more important or the most active opposition figures.”

Given what we now know about the capabilities of modern surveillance technologies ten years on from this case, it’s clear that such decisions no longer apply.

These capabilities also have a specific impact on sur place asylum cases. Such cases are based on the activities of the applicant in the country in which they seek asylum and not in their home country. For example, if an Iranian student were to engage in protest outside the Iranian embassy in London and was identified by the embassy, they could seek asylum in the UK for fear of returning to Iran. New technologies however could allow not just the embassy but also the Iranian government to identify protestors with relative ease simply by analysing the communications and devices of a few of those involved. This would put all of their safety in jeopardy on return to their home countries, and could therefore have significant implications for asylum law.

But it this is more than just an issue of political freedoms. Refugees and other forcibly displaced persons are seeking protection from persecution, and continued surveillance means continued persecution. A 2012 study looking at the surveillance of Karen refugees from Burma/Myanmar in Sheffield, England, found deliberate efforts by perpetrators in South East Asia to smear, embarrass, and cause mental harm to individuals by hacking into their communications devices. The refugees themselves “saw it implicitly as the Burmese government attempting to intimidate at long distance and as they were unable to physically oppress, the government sought to do this psychologically.”

With advanced surveillance capabilities, the possibility for anyone, “from anywhere in the world” to carry out such attacks is both unproblematic and deeply troubling. This is why we filed a criminal complaint on the behalf of Tadesse and welcome the UK authorities’ intention to investigate. A thorough investigation will not only provide redress for Tadesse, it will have extensive implications for others who have been forcibly displaced and for the international trade in surveillance technologies in general.