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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.

Blog
Georgia Ardizzone's picture

The 2012 report of the Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC), released last Friday, has raised serious concerns over the government’s approach to arms exports, highlighting the use of British exports to facilitate repression and prolong conflict in authoritarian regimes abroad.

In his oral evidence to the Committees, the Foreign Secretary William Hague, stressed that the government’s position on granting export licences for goods on the Export Control list has not changed:

The long-standing British position is clear: we will not issue licences where we judge there is a clear risk that the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts, or which might be used to facilitate internal repression."

Blast
Sam Smith's picture

SchNEWS just tweeted this photo of protesters being blocked by a steel police cordon. This cordon has made frequent appearances at recent public order situations across the UK, including in South Wales, Leicestershire and Greater Manchester, but was originally developed for deployment during chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) incidents by Cobham plc. More details can be found in the company's 2010 marketing material, which was made available as part of the SpyFiles.

Tools and technology created and purchased for one purpose are often ultimately used for another; this kind of "mission creep"  is particularly pervasive in the surveillance context, where technologies that are initially intended for use only in the most serious national security cases gradually enter regular policing. 

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.

In the media
Publisher: 
CNN
Publication date: 
10-Apr-2012
Author(s): 
Andrew Keen
Original story link: 

Worse still, a privacy group called Privacy International has identified British, American, German and Israeli companies who are exporting spooky technologies like DPI hardware and equally sophisticated software products like "optical cyber solutions" that enable mass surveillance of large scale populations, to repressive regimes in the Middle East such as Yemen, Egypt, Syria and Iran.

In the media
Publisher: 
The Observer
Publication date: 
07-Apr-2012
Author(s): 
Jamie Doward and Rebecca Lewis
Original story link: 

Privacy International said it had visited international arms and security fairs and identified at least 30 UK companies that it believes have exported surveillance technology to countries including Syria, Iran, Yemen and Bahrain. A further 50 companies exporting similar technology from the US were also identified. Germany and Israel were also identified as big exporters of surveillance technology, in what is reportedly a £3bn a year industry.

Last month Privacy International asked 160 companies about sales of equipment to repressive regimes. So far fewer than 10 have written back to deny selling to nations with poor human rights records. The campaign group warns: "The emerging information and communications infrastructures of developing countries are being hijacked for surveillance purposes, and the information thereby collected is facilitating unlawful interrogation practices, torture and extrajudicial executions."...

"By the time the embargo is in place the ship has sailed," said Eric King, head of research at Privacy International. "Our research shows the idea that this is not a British problem is wrong. We need governments to act now. In a few years this equipment will need to be updated; these countries don't have the technical expertise to do it, so this is something the UK needs to be aware of and to take action against now."

Countries: 
Blast
Eric King's picture

The Independent has reported that a new intelligence system has been developed and deployed in the UK in advance of the Olympic games:

"The new system developed by MI5 for the Olympics, including computerisation, details of which are classified, has been in place since last October. It is deemed to have been highly successful, and will be kept in use after the Games have finished....Security Service has installed a new monitoring and intelligence gathering system to ensure safety of the Games. This includes security checks on more than 540,000 people, monitoring militant groups and also liaising with foreign intelligence services."

In the media
Publisher: 
Deutsche Welle
Publication date: 
23-Mar-2012
Author(s): 
Cyrus Farivar
Original story link: 

Yet Eric King, of Privacy International, an advocacy group in London, cautioned that the ban might not go far enough.

"For a country like Iran in which all companies administering national infrastructure are effectively controlled by the state, it is still unclear whether the ban on exports of equipment and software "intended for use…by the Iranian authorities" goes far enough," he wrote in an e-mail sent to DW.

"Until such time as the Iranian government corrects its appalling attitude to human rights, there can be no guarantee that any surveillance technology exported to the country will not be used to facilitate torture, execution and unlawful detention."

Countries: 
Press release

The Council of the European Union today reinforced restrictive measures on EU exports to Iran, banning "exports of equipment and software intended for use in the monitoring or interception of internet and telephone communications by the Iranian authorities".

The Council also added 17 people responsible for grave human rights violations to the list of those subject to a travel ban and asset freeze. An existing ban on equipment for use in internal repression was transferred from the sanctions regime addressing the Iranian nuclear programme to the regime addressing human rights abuses, for reasons of coherence.

Report
22-Nov-1995

This report presents a detailed analysis of the international trade in surveillance technology. Its primary concern is the flow of sophisticated computer-based technology from developed countries to developing countries - and particularly to non-democratic regimes. It is in this environment where surveillance technologies become technologies of political control.

In the media
Publisher: 
Reuters
Publication date: 
22-Mar-2012
Author(s): 
Steve Stecklow
Original story link: 

ZTE markets its monitoring system as low-cost and user-friendly. In May 2008, the firm made a presentation to the government-controlled Iran Telecommunication Research Center about its latest networking products, including the "ZTE Lawful Intercept Solution," according to Privacy International, a London-based non-profit that advocates the right to privacy and obtained a copy of the presentation.

Countries: 

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