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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
Matthew Rice's picture

The latest Snowden document revelation, which shows how GCHQ and the NSA are conducting broad, real-time monitoring of YouTube, Facebook, and Blogger using a program called "Squeaky Dolphin," is the most recent demonstration of the immense interception capabilities of intelligence services.

In the media
Publisher: 
SciDev Net
Publication date: 
17-Jan-2014
Author(s): 
Pete Guest
Original story link: 

Edin Omanovic, a surveillance technology specialist at Privacy International, says that the expansion of the control list represents progress, but that more work needs to be done to curtail access to such technologies.

“We have to think of ways for [governments] to enforce the controls,” he says. “It’s always going to be the case that some of these technologies are intangible and very easy to export, which presents unique enforcement challenges that conventional arms don’t.”

In the media
Publisher: 
IT News
Publication date: 
15-Jan-2014
Author(s): 
Darren Pauli
Original story link: 

But London officials close to the WA changes told Privacy International researcher Edin Omanovic it was the intention of WA participants to focus on tools such as the German made FinFisher spy tool to restrict only platforms marketed and used by law enforcement and governments for lawful interception.

"Discussions between Privacy International and export control officials involved in drafting the new controls suggest that it was never the intention of these new controls to catch legitimate security research tools and that efforts have been made to prevent them from being subject to controls," Omanovic said.

In the media
Publisher: 
Danish Broadcasting Corporation
Publication date: 
07-Jan-2014
Original story link: 

Privacy International's Edin Omanovic speaks with the Danish Broadcasting Association at Milipol 2013.

Blog
Edin Omanovic's picture

UK parliamentary select committees are charged with overseeing the work of government in relation to particular topical issues or the work of particular departments. When it comes to UK Government policy on arms, it’s the Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) that's responsible: a conglomeration of four select committees made up of serving Members of Parliament that collects evidence and conducts an inquiry into developments in export control policy and the preceding years’ exports of military and dual-use goods.

One of the most valuable aspects of the committees' work is the fact that it provides an avenue for other stakeholders such as civil society, industry, academia, and the general public to provide evidence and influence government policy. For over a year, Privacy International has been engaging the committees highlighting the proliferation of commercial surveillance companies in the UK and the urgent need for action to regulate their activities. Our written evidence to the committees has just been published, which you can find here.

Blog
Alinda Vermeer's picture

Nine months ago, Privacy International, together with the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Bahrain Watch and Reporters without Borders, filed complaints with the OECD against Gamma International, a company that exported the FinFisher intrusive surveillance system and Trovicor, a German company (formerly a business unit of Siemens) which sells internet monitoring and mass surveillance products. This week, we’ve learned that the German National Contact Point (NCP) of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) will not be investigating the most serious allegations included in the complaint against Trovicor.

Press release

A complaint filed with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) against Trovicor GmbH, a German company accused of selling surveillance technology to Bahrain, has been rejected on almost every count, the German National Contact Point (NCP) for the OECD announced.

In February 2013, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), Privacy International, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and Bahrain Watch filed a complaint with the NCP which accused Trovicor of breaching the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, all of which concern human rights, by exporting surveillance technology. In Bahrain this technology has enabled grave human rights abuses, including the arrest, detention and torture of political opponents and dissidents by the government of the Arab Gulf state Bahrain.

Blog
Edin Omanovic's picture

Privacy International is currently engaged in a joint project on export controls with the Open Technology Institute and Digitale Gesellschaft. The blog post below was co-written by Edin Omanovic and Tim Maurer and is also available on the OTI blog.

Export controls have something of a bad reputation in technology circles, and not without good reason.

In the media
Publisher: 
TechWeek Europe
Publication date: 
10-Dec-2013
Author(s): 
Tom Brewster
Original story link: 

Privacy International was cautious about the impact of the decision in Vienna, but was convinced this would make an impact on companies such as Britain’s Gamma International, which produces the FinFisher spying tool, and Italy’s Hacking Team, which offers competing technology.

Both have faced criticism after their code was uncovered in nations with poor human rights records.

“For the first time, intrusion technology such as those that Finfisher and Hacking Team sell will be explicitly and directly controlled for what that are – surveillance technologies,” Eric King, head researcher at Privacy International, told TechWeekEurope.

In the media
Publisher: 
The Canberra Times
Publication date: 
06-Dec-2013
Author(s): 
Philip Dorling
Original story link: 

Research by Privacy International, an independent watchdog group focused on the proliferation of surveillance technology, has found more than 338 companies offering a total of 97 different technologies worldwide.

Selling such equipment is perfectly legal and these companies say the new technologies are part of the fabric of modern IT systems and help governments defeat terrorism and crime.

But human rights and privacy campaigners are concerned that oppressive regimes can use such technology to clamp down on critics and democracy advocates.

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