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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: 
IT News
Publication date: 
19-Feb-2014
Author(s): 
Juha Saarinen
Original story link: 

Tadesse Kersmo and lobby group Privacy International filed the complaint with the cyber crime unit of the UK National Crime Agency, asking it to investigate the allegedly illegal interception of communications through the use of a little-known malware used by governments around the world.

In the media
Publisher: 
Agora Vox
Publication date: 
05-Mar-2014
Author(s): 
Flaviano Tarducci
Original story link: 

 Privacy International, una ong che combatte per il diritto alla privacy, ha creato un database liberamente accessibile, dove sono elencate 338 aziende con sede nei Paesi occidentali che vendono tecnologie di sorveglianza a Paesi con regimi repressivi che intendono usarle come strumento di controllo politico. Matthew Rice di Privacy International spiega che le società di sorveglianza svolgono marketing e vendita delle più potenti, invasive e pericolose tecnologie di sorveglianza al mondo, mantenendo relazioni con i regimi repressivi ai quali hanno venduto i loro prodotti. Dal suddetto database risulta che nel milanese ci sono almeno 5 società coinvolte direttamente nella vendita di servizi di sorveglianza a governi autoritari: la RCS di Milano; la Digint di Garbagnate Milanese; la Spektra di Busto Arsizio; la Area di Vozzola Ticino e la Hacking Team di Milano.

Countries: 
In the media
Publisher: 
Associated Press
Publication date: 
18-Feb-2014
Author(s): 
Raphael Satter
Original story link: 

Speaking at a news conference organized by London-based Privacy International, Kersmo said Monday that he thought he was safe from snooping when he left Ethiopia for the United Kingdom in 2009.

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.

In the media
Publisher: 
Zeit Online
Publication date: 
02-Mar-2014
Author(s): 
Jennifer Stange
Original story link: 

Laut Privacy International ist Deutschland nach den USA und Großbritannien der drittgrößte Exporteur dieser Technologie weltweit. Neben Asien wächst vor allem in den arabischen Staaten die Nachfrage.

Blog
Alinda Vermeer's picture

On Monday, Privacy International submitted a dossier to the National Cyber Crime Unit of the National Crime Agency on behalf of Ethiopian political refugee Tadesse Kersmo, asking them to investigate the potentially unlawful interception of Tadesse's communications, as well as the role a British company played in developing and exporting the invasive commercial surveillance software called FinSpy that was found on Tadesse's computer.

Here, we address some of the legal questions surrounding the complaint.

Blog
Edin Omanovic's picture

Political activist and university lecturer Tadesse Kersmo believed that he was free from intrusive surveillance when he was granted political asylum in the UK. Instead, he was likely subject to more surveillance than ever. His case underlines the borderless nature of advanced surveillance technologies and why it represents such a massive problem.

In the past, those fleeing conflict or persecution could reasonably expect a degree of respite if they managed to escape their circumstances. However, the nature of modern surveillance and its ability to facilitate oppression has changed this. When it comes to surveillance, familiar concepts of borders and nation states are becoming increasingly irrelevant. For refugees, this has grave implications.

Blog
Alinda Vermeer's picture

After suffering years of persistent harassment, violence, and surveillance at the hands of his oppressive government, Tadesse Kersmo had enough. Tired of living under constant monitoring, Tadesse and his wife escaped Ethiopia, where they had been politically active for years, and were granted asylum in the United Kingdom in 2009.

It was only a few years later that they discovered that this escape was an illusion, and that they had been followed from Ethiopia to England. He may have left his country, but Tadesse was still a target.

He wasn’t followed physically, however - the surveillance was much more clandestine. Tadesse appears to have been tracked through his computer via a Trojan that is part of a commercial intrusion kit called FinFisher.

Press release

Privacy International today has made a criminal complaint1 to the National Cyber Crime Unit of the National Crime Agency urging them to investigate the potentially unlawful interception of the communications of an Ethiopian political refugee living in the UK, as well as the role a British company played in developing and exporting invasive

Blog
Kenneth Page's picture

Over the past half year, Privacy International has been investigating the sale of surveillance technology made by South African company VASTech to Libya and what role the government had in promoting and developing the system. Unfortunately, the government has been slow to respond to our questions and has offered only vague answers. This has done little to ease our concerns about the part they played in the development and export of mass surveillance technology to a military regime with a history of internal repression and human rights abuses.

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