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Big Brother Inc.

Exposing the global trade in surveillance technologies and holding it to account

The global surveillance industry is estimated at $5 billion a year. The capabilities of surveillance technology have grown hugely in the past decade – in the hands of a repressive regime, this equipment eradicates free speech, quashes dissent and places dissidents at the mercy of ruling powers as effectively as guns and bombs, if not more so. However, export control regulations have not kept pace with this development, nor have companies taken it upon themselves to vet the governments to whom they sell their technology. The situation has now reached a crisis point: countries must enact strict export controls now, or be guilty of a staggering and continued hypocrisy with regard to global human rights.

Today, surveillance technology ranges from malware which infects a target computer to record every keystroke, to systems for tapping undersea fibre-optic cables in order to monitor the communications of entire populations. In countries where detention without trial, torture and extra-judicial killings are commonplace, these technologies imperil the lives of every activist and dissident. 

In 1995, PI published a report on the international trade in surveillance technology, focusing on the sale of technologies by companies in Western countries to repressive regimes intent on using them as tools of political control. Since then, thanks to the enormous profits involved and the wholesale failure of governments and regulators to intervene, this unethical (and in some cases unlawful) practice has only escalated. We therefore began a second investigation in July 2011, and we are now using a blend of research and investigation, public campaigning, political engagement and strategic litigation to bring to light the abuses of the surveillance industry and ensure that it is properly regulated in future. 

Our objectives are:

  1. To raise worldwide awareness of the dangers of surveillance technologies and the ethical failures of the surveillance industry.
  2. To ensure that export controls are put in place in Europe and the US to restrict the sale of surveillance technologies to repressive regimes.
  3. To seek redress for those who have suffered harm as a result of Western-manufactured surveillance technologies.

There is growing international momentum towards stricter regulation of surveillance technology exports. In the past year, the EU Parliament passed a resolution calling for stricter oversight of surveillance technology exports, President Obama announced an executive order to prevent such exports to Syria and Iran, and the French Secretary of State for the Digital Economy signalled a sea change in France’s export policies. The west must lead from the front, taking decisive action now to change export regulations, bringing its foreign and export policies in line, ending a staggering and damaging hypocrisy.

Surveillance Industry Index

Spy FilesThe Surveillance Industry Index is the largest catalogue of the private surveillance sector ever assembled, comprising of materials collected at surveillance trade shows around the world and information provided by Wikileaks and other organisations. Read more »

Surveillance Who's Who

Surveillance Who's WhoSurveillance Who's Who exposes the government agencies that attended six ISS World conferences between 2006 and 2009. ISS world is a surveillance trade show known to industry insiders as 'The Wiretappers' Ball'. Read more »

Global CAUSE

CAUSEThe Coalition Against Unlawful Surveillance Exports, made up of Privacy International, along with Amnesty International, Digitale Gesellschaft, FIDH, Human Rights Watch, the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, and Reporters without Borders, aims to hold governments and private companies accountable for the international trade in communication surveillance technologies. Read more »

Big Brother Inc.

In the media
Publisher: 
Wired UK
Publication date: 
04-Apr-2014
Author(s): 
Liat Clark
Original story link: 

The Coalition Against Unlawful Surveillance Exports (Cause) launched today in Brussels, and is made up of Amnesty International, Digitale Gesellschaft, FIDH, Human Rights Watch, the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, Privacy International and Reporters without Borders.

"The unchecked development, sale and export of these technologies is not justifiable," adds Kenneth Page at Privacy International. "Governments must swiftly take action to prevent these technologies spreading into dangerous hands."

In the media
Publisher: 
Le Monde
Publication date: 
28-Mar-2014
Author(s): 
Louise Couvelaire
Original story link: 

"Aujourd'hui, il peut enregistrer les conversations téléphoniques, avoir accès aux textos... Ce qui n'était pas le cas il y a encore un an", fulmine Matthew Rice, de l'organisation à but non lucratif Privacy International, basée à Londres.

Countries: 
Blog
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.

In the media
Publisher: 
L'Espresso
Publication date: 
25-Mar-2014
Author(s): 
Stefania Maurizi
Original story link: 

Neanche un mese fa “l'Espresso” aveva rivelato che “Privacy International” , una delle più rispettate organizzazioni internazionali per la difesa della privacy, aveva scritto al governo italiano per chiedere spiegazioni sulla Hacking Team, dopo che l'azienda era finita sulle cronache internazionali perché il suo trojan aveva preso di mira attivisti e giornalisti di paesi noti per la repressione politica.

Countries: 
In the media
Publisher: 
The Hill
Publication date: 
24-Mar-2014
Author(s): 
Kate Tummarello and Julian Hattem
Original story link: 

Democratic governments could impose limits on the exports of surveillance technology to prevent the tools from being used to suppress the media and violate human rights, according to a new report. The analysis from the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, Britain’s Privacy International and Germany’s Digitale Gesellschaft found that existing export control regulations are out of date and unsuited for modern technology.

Blog
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.

In the media
Publisher: 
The New Yorker
Publication date: 
12-Mar-2014
Author(s): 
Joshua Kopstein
Original story link: 

The other week, Privacy International, a U.K.-based human-rights organization, filed a criminal complaint on Kersmo’s behalf, making him the first U.K. resident to challenge the use of hacking tools by a foreign power. “This case would be important to all refugees who end up in countries where they think they are safe,” Alinda Vermeer, a lawyer with Privacy International, who filed Kersmo’s complaint, told me in a phone interview. That sense of safety is illusory, she said, because countries armed with tools like FinSpy insure that refugees “can be spied on in an equally intrusive way as they were back at home.” Worse, the surveillance also reveals with whom the victims have been communicating, potentially endangering the lives of contacts and relatives still residing in their home country.

Blog
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.

In the media
Publisher: 
Voice of America
Publication date: 
20-Feb-2014
Author(s): 
Peter Heinlein
Original story link: 

In another case, an Ethiopian refugee in London is asking British police to investigate evidence that FinSpy software known as “FinFisher” was used to hack his computer.

Tadesse Kersmo, who identified himself as a member of the executive committee of the Ethiopian opposition group Ginbot 7, filed a complaint Monday asking for a probe of Gamma Group, a Britain-based company that produces the FinFisher software.

Kersmo told a news conference he became suspicious after files from his computer began appearing on the Internet, and found evidence it had been infected with FinSpy.

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