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Kenneth Page's picture

Surveillance companies selling mass and intrusive spy technologies to human rights-abusing governments often are benefitting from the financial and institutional support from their home government, revealing a more closely-linked relationship between the sector and the State than previously believed.

Recent revelations concerning the funding of Hacking Team's surveillance technology with public money highlights the role of states in funding the development of surveillance technologies and companies. This discovery was preceded by the discovery that the South African Government funded the development of the mass surveillance system Zebra, made by VASTech. And with State supporting of national business abroad, including the UK promoting cyber-security exports, we are seeing a variety of ways the state is enabling the commercial surveillance market.

Blog
Edin Omanovic's picture

The market for surveillance technologies has expanded so much in recent years that oversight has been totally unable to keep up, which has led to devastating consequences in the lives of human rights defenders in repressive regimes around the world.

According to a new study released today by Privacy International, the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, and Digitale Gesellschaft, international efforts to oversee the trade in surveillance technologies are out-dated and urgently need to be updated in order to keep up in the digital age. Ensuring that export regulations are fit for purpose is a vital part of an overall strategy to ensure the surveillance industry does not continue to trample upon human rights and facilitate internal repression.

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Dr Richard Tynan's picture

For some time, many in the privacy and security community hoped for a completely open-source mobile phone, one that would allow for code to be examined and strengthened to prevent malicious attacks to a user's privacy.

So when Canonical, the company that primarily funds Ubuntu GNU/Linux, announced it was entering the mobile phone market, we were among the many who hailed this development. Given the company's track record, it was believed that the open-source philosophy of Ubuntu would carry through to their mobile phone version. In light of what we now know about the fallibility of mobile phones, which can enable highly invasive and mass surveillance, the need for this kind of phone has only increased recently.

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Edin Omanovic's picture

UPDATE: The past few days have seen more movement in Switzerland. The Swiss Secretariat for Economic Affairs responded swiftly to our request for official clarification. The SECO confirmed to PI that "all licence requests for the export of technologies for internet monitoring were withdrawn" by the applicants themselves, and that some of the requests for mobile phone monitoring technology have also been withdrawn.

A further follow-up by Swiss media has revealed that the Government has now approved four licences for mobile phone monitoring technologies, which would be largely destined for countries that have been supplied comparable goods since 2010. Speaking with the media, the Swiss Government said they did take human rights concerns into account, but viewed that the risk for misuse was low for these particular exports.

Blog
Emily Linnea Mahoney's picture

In the late eighteenth century in Germany, ‘anthropologist’ Johann Blumenbach published a degenerative hypothesis that linked cranium and facial profiles to supposed character traits and accordingly divided human beings into five different races: the Caucasian, Mongolian, Malayan, Ethiopian, and American.1

In the 1870s, Alphonse Bertillon, a police officer in France, started a trend to identify criminals based on facial characteristics, alongside subsequent use of the camera to photograph and identify repeat offenders.

In the 1930s in Nazi Germany, IBM computer scientists devised an identification system in aid of the Third Reich’s attempt to systematically decimate entire populations.2

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Matthew Rice's picture

Private surveillance companies selling some of the most intrusive surveillance systems available today are in the business of purchasing security vulnerabilities of widely-used software, and bundling it together with their own intrusion products to provide their customers unprecedented access to a target’s computer and phone.

It's been known for some time that governments, usually at a pricey sum, purchase such exploits, known as zero- and one-day exploits, from security researchers to use for surveillance and espionage. While the focus has been on governments directly purchasing these exploits, it is equally important to highlight private surveillance firms role in the market of exploit sales.

Blog
Kenneth Page's picture

Only a few days after it was reported that intrusive surveillance technology developed and sold by Italian surveillance company Hacking Team was found in some of the most repressive countries in the world, Privacy International has uncovered evidence which suggests the company has received over €1 million in public financing.

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Dr Richard Tynan's picture

The 'GSOC saga' began a number of weeks ago with the revelation that the oversight body of the Irish police force, the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), may have been the target of sophisticated electronic surveillance. A security company, Verrimus, found that there was evidence that an IMSI Catcher device may have been deployed in the vicinity of GSOC's offices which could have intercepted all mobile phone communications of its officers and anyone visiting the offices.

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Dr Gus Hosein's picture

In Geneva this week, an expert seminar will be held at the Human Rights Council on the right to privacy. To inform these discussions and debates, Privacy International is releasing our report, The State of Privacy 2014, which identifies recent accomplishments from around the world, and highlights significant challenges ahead for this right.

To read the full report, go here.

Promoting and defending the right to privacy in national and international policy discourses is always an interesting challenge. The right to privacy is fundamental to who we are as human beings, insulating our most intimate and personal thoughts and deeds, and acts as a critical safeguard against abuse and overreach by pow- erful institutions. It is perhaps for these reasons that the right has for so long been under attack by governments.

Blog
Anna Crowe's picture

“Open government” – the push for greater transparency, accountability and innovation from governments – is an idea that has gained increasing traction in recent years, as the potential for new technologies to enhance democracy is being realised.

But making government more open and responsive should not mean compromising on privacy and data protection. The Open Government Guide outlines steps governments can take towards more open government and Privacy International has written a draft chapter on privacy for the Guide, which is now open for comment.

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