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Chapter: 

Overview

Numerous investigations and reports in the past decade have highlighted the extent to which the global arms trade nurtures and supports brutal and repressive regimes across the world. The industry and its participants have been put under the microscope by a number of parliamentary inquiries in Europe and North America. Without exception, these have uncovered a complex and profitable trade with few controls and with no ethical compass.

Big Brother Incorporated is concerned with a parallel activity involving many companies involved in the arms trade. The international trade in surveillance technology (sometimes known as the Repression Trade) involves the manufacture and export of technologies of political control. These technologies involve sophisticated computer-based technology which vastly increases the power of authorities.

Amongst the products involved are :

  • telephone interception equipment
  • bugging devices
  • police and military information systems
  • ID cards
  • "System X" telephone systems
  • communications logging systems
  • micro-cameras
  • parabolic microphones
  • automatic transcription systems
  • infra red scopes
  • night vision equipment
  • advanced CCTV equipment
  • geographic information systems
  • vehicle tracking technology
  • automated fingerprint systems
  • biometric technology
  • cellular intercept systems
  • computer intercept systems
  • crowd analysis and monitoring technology
  • data matching programs

Much of this technology is used to track the activities of dissidents, human rights activists, journalists, student leaders, minorities, trade union leaders, and political opponents. It is also useful for monitoring larger sectors of the population. With this technology, the financial transactions, communications activity and geographic movements of millions of people can be captured, analyzed and transmitted cheaply and efficiently. The emerging information and communications infrastructures of countries can be hijacked for limitless surveillance purposes.

In the absence of meaningful legal or constitutional protections, such technology is inimical to democratic reform. It can certainly prove fatal to anyone "of interest" to a regime.

Western surveillance technology is providing invaluable support to military and totalitarian authorities throughout the world. British computer firm ICL (International Computers Limited) provided the technological infrastructure to establish the South African automated Passbook system, upon which much of the functioning of the Apartheid regime depended. In the late 1970s Security Systems International supplied security technology to Idi Amin's brutal regime in Uganda.

In the 1980s, Israeli company Tadiram developed and exported the technology for the computerized death list used by the Guatemalan police. Meanwhile, companies such as PK Electronics routinely provide the Chinese authorities with bugging equipment and telephone tapping devices.

The extent of Western support for inhumane regimes is widespread. The notorious human rights abuses in Indonesia - particularly those affecting East Timor - would not be possible without the strategic and technological support of Western companies. Amongst those companies supplying the Indonesian police and military with surveillance and targeting technology are Morpho Systems (France), De la Rue Printak (UK), EEV Night Vision (UK), ICL (UK), Marconi Radar and Control Systems (UK), Pyser (UK), Siemens Plessey Defense Systems (UK) Rockwell International Corporation (USA) and SWS Security (USA). These and other corporations supply the intelligence gathering and identification systems necessary to pursue a program of ethnic cleansing.

This technology is exported to virtually all countries with appalling human rights records. Nigeria is supplied by such companies as Codalex (Canada) and Continental Microwave (UK). Companies supplying to Chinese authorities are numerous, but include Phillips (Netherlands) EEV Night Vision (UK), GEC Marconi (UK), GPT-Plessey Telecom (UK), Pilkington PE Ltd (UK) and Siemens Plessey (UK).

The Thailand Central Population Database and ID card system, developed by the US based Control Data Systems, involves sophisticated intelligence that has been used for political purposes by the Thai military. This integrated system creates an ID card, electronic fingerprint and facial image, and electronic data link involving the entire population. It spans most government agencies and is controlled by the powerful military/police dominated Interior Ministry.

Databases in the Thai system include : Central Population Database, National Election System, Political Party Database, Political Member Database, Voter listing, Electronic Minority Group Registration System, Electronic Fingerprint Identification System, Electronic Face Identification System, Population and House Report System, National Tax Collection System, Village Information System, Secret Information System, Public Opinion System, Criminal Investigation System, National Security System, Social Security System, Passport Control System, Driver Control System, Gun Registration, Family Registration, Alien Control System and Immigration Control System.

Similar ID card and "smart" card systems have been marketed to more than two dozen developing countries. Without exception, they result in wholesale discrimination and hardship for vulnerable people. Such systems can adversely affect the delicate balance pursued by an emerging democracy. The adoption of Information Technology (IT) involves a change to the relationship between citizen and the State. The use of surveillance technologies vastly increases this change.

The justification advanced by the companies involved in this trade is identical to the justification advanced in the arms trade - i.e. that the technology is neutral. Privacy International's view is that in the absence of legal protections, the technology can never be neutral. Even those technologies intended for "benign" uses rapidly develop more sinister purposes. The UK manufactured "Scoot" traffic control cameras in Beijing's Tianamen Square were automatically employed as surveillance cameras during the student demonstrations. Images captured from the cameras was broadcast over Chinese television to ensure that the offending students were captured.

The emerging Information Superhighway also poses fundamental threats to developing countries (the Superhighway is a metaphor for the convergence of information and communications systems to form a national and international information web. The 1995 summit of the G7 (the seven richest industrial powers) linked arms with some of the most dominant corporations in the technology industry to form a consensus about how the Superhighway should be built. They agreed to a set of principles that would maximize growth, development and profit. Relatively little attention was paid to the negative impact of the Superhighway on developing countries and on the rights and privacy of citizens of all countries.

Martin Bangermann, Europe's Commissioner in charge of information technology, has remarked "We will not achieve the Information Society unless we give the free market a free rein". In the context of the trade in surveillance technologies to third world countries, this signals a "hands off" policy. An unregulated Superhighway is likely to maximize surveillance and increase the power of institutions in control of the technology.

It should be a source of grave concern that the world's telecommunications and computer companies have been moving to force government to back away from regulating information technology. In 1994, under the leadership of US Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a consortium of the world's leading companies have formed the Global Information Infrastructure Commission (GIIC). Headed by the president of Mitsubishi, the chairman of EDS, and the vice chairman of Siemens Corporation, the GIIC intends to create a conglomerate of interests powerful enough to subsume government interest in regulation.

The effort is being funded to a large extent by the World Bank, which in early 1994 appears to have been persuaded by CSIS that unregulated economic investment was more important to developing economies than social and political reform. The corporate sector, argued CSIS, can deliver this economic reform along the Superhighway. And they can do it best if they, not the governments, take the lead.

The unregulated development and export of these technologies creates grave and unnecessary threats to developing countries. The trade requires scrutiny and regulation to help minimize the fatal impact that it can cause. Whether this impact is intended or unforseen, the surveillance industry has a responsibility to ensure that the export and development of its products conform to scrupulous ethical standards. Developed countries should ensure that the export industry is regulated. Technological assessment must be a pre-requisite.

This report is by no means comprehensive. It omits numerous government-led systems. For example, the notorious PROMIS surveillance software marketed throughout the world by the US Justice Department has led to widespread fears about the creation of an international tracking system for individuals "of interest". The US, French and British governments' moves to limit effective encryption systems is also of profound importance to developing countries, but is not dealt with in any detail here. These and many other issues will be explored in updates of Big Brother Incorporated We are hoping that interested people will contact us to provide further information on this trade. We also welcome "clarification" of the facts by the companies named in this report.

Privacy International wishes to acknowledge the invaluable advice and assistance of a number of people and organizations in the preparation of Big Brother Incorporated. Because of the sensitive nature of the report's contents, we have agreed that they should remain anonymous. However, the invaluable support of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington DC is gratefully acknowledged.

The report was prepared on an entirely voluntary basis. It has not been financially supported by any individual or organization.