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Issue

Communications Surveillance

Interception and monitoring of individuals' communications is becoming more widespread, more indiscriminate and more invasive, just as our reliance on electronic communications increases.

Nearly all major international agreements on human rights protect the right of individuals to be free from unwarranted surveillance. This guarantee has trickled down into national constitutional or legal provisions protecting the privacy of communications.

In most democratic countries, intercepts of oral, telephone and digital communications are initiated by law enforcement or intelligence agencies only after approval by a judge, and only during the investigation of serious crimes.
Yet government agencies continue to lobby for increased surveillance capabilities, particularly as technologies change. Communications surveillance has expanded to Internet and digital communications. In many countries, law enforcement agencies have required internet providers and telecommunications companies to monitor users’ traffic. Many of these activities are carried out under dubious legal basis and remain unknown to the public.

We have conducted investigations to uncover communications surveillance schemes and the technologies that enable communications surveillance. We also work with technology providers to promote the use of secure communications technologies, and have worked with human rights groups to train them in securing their communications. We continue to monitor the use of communications surveillance, advocate for transparency and independent authorization and oversight, and promote other safeguards against abuse.

Communications Surveillance

Blog
Matthew Rice's picture

Privacy International is pleased to announce the Surveillance Industry Index, the most comprehensive publicly available database on the private surveillance sector.

Over the last four years, Privacy International has been gathering information from various sources that details how the sector sells its technologies, what the technologies are capable of and in some cases, which governments a technology has been sold to. Through our collection of materials and brochures at surveillance trade shows around the world, and by incorporating certain information provided by Wikileaks and Omega Research Foundation, this collection of documents represents the largest single index on the private surveillance sector ever assembled. All told, there are 1,203 documents detailing 97 surveillance technologies contained within the database. The Index features 338 companies that develop these technologies in 36 countries around the world.

Blog
Kenneth Page's picture

On at least two separate occasions, the South African government has provided funding to a well-resourced surveillance company for the development of mass surveillance technologies, the very equipment found to be used by the Gaddafi's repressive military regime in Libya, according to documents uncovered by Privacy International.

In February 2008, sandwiched between funding for a mechanical grape conveyor belt, and funding to improve gear changing and engine efficiency, the South African Ministry of Trade provided R 870,822.45 of public finds to the surveillance company VASTech – specifically for the Zebra system. Two years later, in January 2010, the Ministry approved even more public money to VASTech, this time the amount to the tune of R 2,692,684.00.

In the media
Publisher: 
The Verge
Publication date: 
12-Nov-2013
Author(s): 
Tom Warren
Original story link: 

Earlier this year, The Washington Post claimed that the National Security Agency (NSA) had developed a method nine years ago to locate cellphones when they were powered down. The publication didn’t provide technical details on the software or hardware involved, leaving security researchers puzzled by the revelations. Seeking clarification on the technologies invoked, British privacy watchdog Privacy International conducted a survey of eight cellphone manufacturers in August to obtain details on how it would be possible to track a cellphone once it’s turned off.

Countries: 
Opinion piece
Carly Nyst's picture

The following is an excerpt from a Comment originally publihsed by The Guardian, written by Privacy International's Head of Advocacy, Carly Nyst:

From databases to mobile phone apps and SMS systems, GPS tracking and humanitarian drones to biometric registration, new technologies are rapidly becoming central to the delivery of humanitarian and development aid.

Refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict are having their irises scanned and their identity documents digitised. Nurses in Nigeria are using SMS systems to communicate HIV test results to health facilities. Cash is being delivered to those living in Kenya's slums through the M-Pesa mobile-phone banking system.

Blog
Caroline Wilson Palow's picture

In a move that echoes strong action taken in the past by European officials to protect privacy, the Belgian and Dutch data protection authorities on Wednesday announced that they will begin an investigation into the security of the SWIFT financial system.

In the media
Publisher: 
Deutsche Welle
Publication date: 
08-Nov-2013
Author(s): 
Ben Knight
Original story link: 

 "The telecommunications companies can actually do an astonishing amount to push back against this sort of surveillance," Eric King, head of research at Privacy International, told DW. "It's plain that the Tempora program is almost certainly unlawful… Companies don't have an obligation to comply with unlawful requests, and should they wish to challenge them, they would be well within their rights to do so, and would likely be successful."

Blog
Dr Richard Tynan's picture

It was a throwaway line in a Washington Post article, one of the many stories about government surveillance in the past few months.

By September 2004, a new NSA technique enabled the agency to find cellphones even when they were turned off. [Joint Special Operations Command] troops called this “The Find,” and it gave them thousands of new targets, including members of a burgeoning al-Qaeda-sponsored insurgency in Iraq, according to members of the unit."

Being able to track a mobile phone, while switched off? It was the first time we had read about the NSA having such a capability, and a revelation that has far-reaching implications. For most consumers, when they turn off their handsets, they have a reasonable expectation that the device is powered off, is not emitting or receiving a signal, and does not have any piece of the mobile phone still 'on'.

Blog
Kenneth Page's picture

Today's hearing was built up in some media circles as an historic ‘public grilling’ of the heads of the UK’s Intelligence Agencies as Mi5, Mi6 and GCHQ appeared in public in front of their oversight committee, the Intelligence and Security Committee.

Nothing would be further from the truth. It was tame, predictable, and limp. No member of the public concerned with the activities of our intelligence agencies would be comforted by the ISC’s performance. The Committee was almost fawning in their attitude and showed a near sense of embarrassment at having to hold them to account in public at all.

For security reasons, the live steam was on a 2 minute delay in case national security secrets were discussed. From the outset, Chair of the Committee (and former Government Foreign Secretary) Sir Malcolm Rifkind noted that this delay would probably not be needed. That should have given an early indication that the questions would not unsettle those giving evidence.

Blog
Sam Smith's picture

The heads of the main UK Intelligence Agencies are all giving evidence to Parliament today, on camera for the first time. The fact that this has as of yet not happened demonstrates how obsolete the UK’s oversight regime is. The UK political establishment revels in its historical traditions, but this can result in archaic proceedings, stuck in another century, refusing to move forward with the modern era. With a time delay (allegedly a few minutes, but possibly 20 years), we get to view the stream of the third debate in three weeks. Whether it’s more like the first monologue, or the second sideshow remains to be seen. It makes for interesting TV, but it’s not primetime drama.

[Spoiler alert ahead for those fans of award-winning political dramas]

In the media
Publisher: 
Deutsche Welle
Publication date: 
04-Nov-2013
Author(s): 
Ben Knight
Original story link: 

 Though it is unsurprising that allied intelligence agencies cooperate and share information, the document did reveal a new facet of the relationship. "What we weren't previously aware of was the level of collusion when it comes to getting round surveillance law," Privacy International spokesman Mike Rispoli told DW. "We can't really be sure, but what we can infer is that when government officials discuss information sharing, they say, 'look at our laws here, look at what we're doing, look how lax our surveillance law is here, … you should get on board with this.' "

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