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Edin Omanovic's picture

This week in London, the world's largest arms fair DSEI rolled into town, bringing together some of the world’s most sophisticated killing and torture equipment with some of the world’s worst human rights abusers. On sale this year was also some of the UK’s premier lawful interception and surveillance technology.

Considering the forum in which these technologies are being sold, and the caliber of customers looking to buy it, you would think that the sale of such technology from the UK is regulated in a similar way to the military equipment also on offer. 

Carly Nyst's picture

Privacy International will soon be launching a research and advocacy project entitled Aiding Surveillance that will focus on the role of international development, humanitarian and funding organisations in promoting privacy and data protection. Click here to join our mailing list to find out more about this project and all of PI's activities.

The development agenda is heralding a new cure-all for humanitarian and development challenges – data.

Eric King's picture

Privacy International’s campaign for effective export controls of surveillance technology is still ongoing, but for one company, action can already be taken by HM Revenue & Customs to hold stop their unethical practices. Here is the story so far...

Press release

In a letter sent earlier in August to Privacy International's lawyers Bhatt Murphy, a representative of the Treasury Solicitor stated:

The Secretary of State, having carried out an assessment of the FinSpy system to which your letter specifically refers, has advised Gamma International that the system does require a licence to export to all destinations outside the EU under Category 5, Part 2 (‘Information Security’) of Annex I to the Dual-Use Regulation. This is because it is designed to use controlled cryptography and therefore falls within the scope of Annex I to the Dual-Use Regulation. The Secretary of State also understands that other products in the Finfisher portfolio could be controlled for export in the same way."

In the media
Deutsche Welle
Publication date: 
Ben Knight
Original story link: 

Eric King, head of research at UK organization Privacy International, where he runs the Big Brother Incorporated project, said he doesn't believe Gamma's malware was stolen.

"Gamma Group is one of the scariest surveillance companies that exists," he told DW. "They have no internal guidelines on who and where they sell their equipment to, beyond laws that are currently in place. Which sounds like a reasonable defense, apart from the fact that there are none. There are no laws at all that govern the export or sale of surveillance technology anywhere in the world.

"The first time that their product was discovered in Egypt, Gamma insisted that it was simply a trial, and the second time, over in Bahrain, they said all of a sudden that their technology had been stolen," King said. "It's getting more and more farcical."

King said it is impossible to verify whether Gamma is lying about the theft because ECAs do not keep records of surveillance software.

"Questions have been asked in the Houses of Parliament, and the British government is saying we don't know anything," he said. "Uncovering the contractual details between a highly secretive organization and what is effectively a foreign intelligence service usually ends up being a mammoth task. That's why Gamma Group is quite happily dismissing things and pointing people in the other direction."

For that reason, groups like Privacy International are lobbying for tighter regulation on surveillance technology. But in the meantime, King said, "Gamma Group, like a number of other companies that are currently peddling their wares to dictators, need to start talking honestly about their customers and coming clean about their business practices."

Eric King's picture

Privacy International has compiled data on the privacy provisions in national constitutions around the world, including which countries have constitutional protections, whether they come from international agreements, what aspects of privacy are actually protected and when those protections were enacted. We are pleased to make this information available under a Creative Commons license for organizations, researchers, students and the community at large to use to support their work (and hopefully contribute to a greater understanding of privacy rights).

The categories

Though the right to privacy exists in several international instruments, the most effective privacy protections come in the form of constitutional articles. Varying aspects of the right to privacy are protected in different ways by different countries. Broad categories include:

Emma Draper's picture

Bloomberg reported today that security researchers have identified FinFisher spyware - "one of the world’s best-known and elusive cyber weapons" - in malicious emails sent to Bahraini pro-democracy activists, including a naturalized U.S. citizen who owns gas stations in Alabama, a London-based human rights activist and a British-born economist in Bahrain.

Analysis of the emails by CitizenLab (a project based within the University of Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs) revealed that they contained trojans that infected the target device and then proceeded to take screen shots, intercept voice-over-Internet calls and transmit a record of every keystroke to a computer in the Bahraini capital Manama. The computer code of the malicious program contained multiple instances of the word 'FinSpy'.

Press release

The charity's lawyers, Bhatt Murphy, have written to the Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills asking why, despite repeated requests, the government has failed to take any concrete steps to stop British surveillance technology being exported to regimes that routinely engage in internal repression and serious human rights breaches including unlawful detention, torture and enforced disappearance.

Opinion piece
Eric King's picture

In September last year, David Cameron told the UN general assembly: "As people in north Africa and the Middle East stand up and give voice to their hopes for more open and democratic societies, we have an opportunity – and I would say a responsibility – to help them." The Arab Spring uprisings had provided a chink of light for those living under repressive regimes, and it was now up to western democracies to help them throw open the door to a bright new future.

Dr Gus Hosein's picture

Not since the 1990s has the internet been so exciting. With its use by political activists and journalists around the world, we can now again entertain the discussions that the internet brings freedom. Digital data traverses routers with little regard to national boundaries and so traditional constraints not longer apply. So it is no surprise that protestors on the streets of Tehran or Cairo are using the internet to organise. We like to believe in the freedom of the internet again, after the rush of "freedom" in the 1990s was replaced with "free downloads" provided by file-sharing and "free services" provided by internet companies.

Our dreamy thoughts of freedom are roughly awoken when these political activists and journalists are hunted down by their governments, imprisoned or worse. Could this wonderful internet actually make these political movements vulnerable? Indeed, it does and it is our fault. Our technologies are intentionally designed with vulnerabilities embedded within, as we design our technologies for ease of use rather than caution and protection.

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