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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
Edin Omanovic's picture

If you were a Middle Eastern tyrant or a Central Asian strongman, and you suddenly found your position of power under threat, where would turn for assistance? Well, Paris, it seems, is actually pretty good start.

This week, the city that gave us a defining revolution based on the very idea that we as human beings are entitled to certain universal rights, plays host to some 1,000 exhibitors and 30,000 attendees as part of Milipol 2013, one of the world’s foremost trade shows for law enforcement agencies showcasing the latest tools in state security and internal repression.

Blog
Matthew Rice's picture

Privacy International is pleased to announce the Surveillance Industry Index, the most comprehensive publicly available database on the private surveillance sector.

Over the last four years, Privacy International has been gathering information from various sources that details how the sector sells its technologies, what the technologies are capable of and in some cases, which governments a technology has been sold to. Through our collection of materials and brochures at surveillance trade shows around the world, and by incorporating certain information provided by Wikileaks and Omega Research Foundation, this collection of documents represents the largest single index on the private surveillance sector ever assembled. All told, there are 1,203 documents detailing 97 surveillance technologies contained within the database. The Index features 338 companies that develop these technologies in 36 countries around the world.

Blog
Kenneth Page's picture

On at least two separate occasions, the South African government has provided funding to a well-resourced surveillance company for the development of mass surveillance technologies, the very equipment found to be used by the Gaddafi's repressive military regime in Libya, according to documents uncovered by Privacy International.

In February 2008, sandwiched between funding for a mechanical grape conveyor belt, and funding to improve gear changing and engine efficiency, the South African Ministry of Trade provided R 870,822.45 of public finds to the surveillance company VASTech – specifically for the Zebra system. Two years later, in January 2010, the Ministry approved even more public money to VASTech, this time the amount to the tune of R 2,692,684.00.

Blog
Matthew Rice's picture

When a product line becomes engulfed in controversy, the PR team's first move is to distance the corporation from the damage. The surveillance market is not immune to this approach, so when companies products are found to be in use by repressive regimes, the decision many boards make is simply to sell off that technology. This increasingly repetitive narrative is failing to solve any of the problems inherent with the sale of surveillance technology and in fact, is creating more.

Blog
Alinda Vermeer's picture

In our ongoing campaign to prevent the sale of surveillance technologies to repressive regimes, Privacy International today has filed a complaint with the South African body responsible for arms controls, asking for an investigation into South Africa-based surveillance company VASTech for the potential illegal export its technology to Libya.

In this case, Western-made surveillance technology was found by the Wall Street Journal when journalists entered the communications monitoring centre of the Gaddafi regime in August 2011. They found English-language training manuals carrying the logo of a French company called Amesys, and reviewed emails that indicated that VASTech provided Libya with tools to tap and log all international phone calls going in and out of the country.

Blog
Edin Omanovic's picture

A sizeable political controversy has engulfed President Goodluck Jonathan’s Government in Nigeria, where details surrounding its plans for the total surveillance of Africa’s most populous country continue to emerge.

Thanks to pervasive snooping technology readily found and developed in the US, UK, Israel and the Netherlands, the already spy-equipped security forces in Nigeria will have greater and more intimate access to the lives of some 56 million Internet users and 115 million active fixed and mobile phone subscribers. The plans have been roundly condemned by Nigeria’s civil society and press, who fear a drift back to Nigeria’s dictatorial past and to the threat it poses to their fundamental human rights.  The apparent lack of any meaningful judicial framework and oversight for the deployment of the technology has so far not stopped government authorities pushing ahead with increased surveillance.

Blog
Kenneth Page's picture

Update: This week we received a response to our letters when we called on the President of the Swiss Confederation, Ueli Maurer, and the Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, to step into the debate and refuse the licence applications for surveillance technology that are currently awaiting approval for export out of Switzerland. While their offices themselves did not reply to us, it is clear our message got through as the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) wrote to us on their behalf.

In their letter, the SECO confirmed to us that the situation was not yet resolved, and a decision was still pending. We hope this is an indication the government is as concerned as we are as to how FinFisher is used by repressive states. Let’s hope this non-approval continues - we’ll be watching.

In the media
Publisher: 
Radio Télévision Suisse
Publication date: 
01-Oct-2013
Original story link: 

"Monsieur le président, je vous écris une lettre..." chantait Boris Vian dans sa chanson antimilitariste de 1954. Le 26 septembre, c'est une ONG qui milite pour la défense des droits de l'homme qui écrit une lettre à Ueli Maurer, conseiller fédéral. Privacy International interpelle le ministre de la Défense pour lui demander de ne pas accorder de licence à la multinationale Gamma qui tente d'exporter ses logiciels espions depuis la Suisse. L'ONG l'accuse de travailler pour des régimes autoritaires et de violer ainsi les droits de l'homme.

Countries: 
In the media
Publisher: 
Jakarta Globe
Publication date: 
25-Sep-2013
Author(s): 
Jonathan Vit
Original story link: 

The UK-based surveillance watchdog Privacy International called the defense ministry’s Gamma deal “deeply troubling,” in light of the military’s checkered human rights record and Gamma’s alleged track record of dealing with authoritarian regimes in Bahrain, Egypt and Turkmenistan.

“When you combine these two truths, we have serious concerns that this technology will be abused to violate the rights of the Indonesian people,” said Edin Omanovic, a research officer at Privacy International. “Whether this happens from the outset or down the line as a result of function creep, we cannot say for sure.

Countries: 
In the media
Publisher: 
St. Galler Tagblatt
Publication date: 
16-Sep-2013
Author(s): 
Tobias Gafafer
Original story link: 

Unternehmen wollen Spionage-Technik aus der Schweiz auch an Regime im Nahen Osten oder Zentralasien exportieren. Wegen eines Artikels unserer Zeitung schaltet sich nun die britische Nichtregierungsorganisation NGO Privacy International ein, die für die Freiheitsrechte kämpft. Sie warnt den Bund davor, die umstrittenen Exportgesuche zu bewilligen. Das schreibt die NGO in einem Brief an die Exportkontrolle im Staatssekretariat für Wirtschaft (Seco) und an die Mitglieder der aussen- und sicherheitspolitischen Kommissionen des Parlaments. Das Schreiben liegt auch unserer Zeitung vor.

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