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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: 
Le Courrier
Publication date: 
02-Dec-2013
Author(s): 
Kessava Packiry
Original story link: 

Faut-il associer l’exportation et la vente de logiciels espions à du matériel de guerre? Cette question, plusieurs parlementaires se la posent après avoir été alertés par Privacy International de la présence d’une antenne de Gamma International en Suisse. Gamma? Un groupe anglais, pointé du doigt par des organisations non gouvernementales (ONG) pour avoir vendu ses techniques de surveillance à des Etats ne respectant pas les droits de l’homme (Bahreïn notamment).

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Matthew Rice's picture

Last week, we learned that the National Security Agency is gathering nearly 5 billion records a day on the whereabouts of mobile phones where ever they are in the world. The report from of the Washington Post, shows the extraordinary scale and reach of the NSA programs that attempt to know everything about us including our location, at any time.

Unfortunately, a scaled down version of this system is also being sold by private surveillance contractors to the highest bidder. The company behind it? Israeli-American company Verint. Their Skylock technology claims to have the ability to "Remotely locate GSM and UMTS targets located anywhere in the world at cell level precision".

Blog
Alinda Vermeer's picture
What is the Wassenaar Arrangement?

The Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies (the "Wassenaar Arrangement") is a multilateral export control regime in which 41 states participate.

The Wassenaar Arrangement was established on 12 July 1996 in Wassenaar, the Netherlands by 33 founding members to contribute to regional and international security and stability. It is the successor to COCOM, a NATO based group that discussed arms exports to non-NATO states, though the membership today is a lot more broad.

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Edin Omanovic's picture
Update:

After an initial discussion with technical and government experts involved in drafting and negotiating the new controls on “intrusion software”, some of our initial questions have been clarified. To read what they had to say, go here.


One of the major dangers of imposing export controls on surveillance systems is the risk of overreach. While you want the scope of the systems being controlled and the language to be wide enough to catch the targeted product and its variants, you also need the language to be specific and detailed enough to ensure that no items get inadvertently caught at the same time.

Blog
Edin Omanovic's picture

Two new categories of surveillance systems were added into the dual-use goods and technologies control list of the Wassenaar Arrangement last week in Vienna, recognising for the first time the need to subject spying tools used by intelligence agencies and law enforcement to export controls.

While there are many questions that still need to be answered, Privacy International cautiously welcomes these additions to the Wassenaar Arrangement. Undoubtedly, these new controls don’t cover everything they could, but the recognition that something needs to be done at Wassenaar level is a foundation to build from.

Blog
Kenneth Page's picture

The proliferation of private companies across the world developing, selling and exporting surveillance systems used to violate human rights and facilitate internal repression has been largely due to the lack of any meaningful regulation.

But a huge step toward finally regulating this billion-dollar industry was taken this week, when on Wednesday night the 41 countries that make up the Wassenaar Arrangement, the key international instrument that imposes controls on the export of conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies, released a statement describing their intention to finally clamp down on this trade.

In the media
Publisher: 
TechHive
Publication date: 
24-Nov-2013
Author(s): 
John E Dunn
Original story link: 

 Activist group Privacy International has launched an ambitious project to track the spread of commercial surveillance, spying and tracking technology and the often secretive firms selling into the booming sector.

Compiled from a variety of sources over the last four years, the Surveillance Industry Index includes 1203 documents covering 338 firms, 97 surveillance systems, and 36 countries, including some from the U.S. and U.K.

In the media
Publisher: 
Mail and Guardian
Publication date: 
22-Nov-2013
Author(s): 
Siyabonga Mchunu
Original story link: 

In a letter to Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies last week, prominent London-based charity Privacy International expressed concern about the funding connections between the department and South African firm VASTech.

The annual report of the department’s support programme for industrial innovation shows that R1.3-million was granted to VASTech’s Zebra E128 software system in 2005. Responding to ama­Bhungane’s questions, the department confirmed that this project was completed in 2008.

Countries: 
Blog
Matthew Rice's picture

Let's be clear: private surveillance companies are not just selling a product. Companies do not merely pack their product into a box and put it in the post. More often than not, surveillance firms sell a consultancy service, one that actively provides pre-sale consultancy, installation of the product, and training on how to operate the technology. When the product breaks, companies often provide ongoing technical support, with some companies sending over of consultants for up to 18 months to provide in-depth support to agencies. A number of companies also operate 24/7 support lines for agencies to contact with their queries.

The consultancy services provided must not be overlooked. Indeed, it is just as dangerous as the technology itself and increases the level of complicity in the perpetration of human rights abuses between Western surveillance companies and the regimes that make up their customer base.

In the media
Publisher: 
Forbes
Publication date: 
21-Nov-2013
Author(s): 
Runa Sandvik
Original story link: 

Privacy International has released a collection of 1,203 documents on the private surveillance sector, detailing mass surveillance technologies capable of covertly collecting millions of emails, text messages, and phone calls on citizens around the world. The documents mention two companies known for selling Internet monitoring technology and unpublished software vulnerabilities to the U.S. National Security Agency.

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