February 8, 2012
By Trevor Timm
“We should be just as concerned with the US government using spy gear as an ‘authoritarian regime.’ There really isn’t much of a difference.” –KTRN
On Wednesday, EFF will give recommendations to the European Parliament for how to combat one of the most troubling problems facing democracy activists around the world: the fact that European and American companies are providing key surveillance technology to authoritarian governments that is then being used to aid repression.
Recent reports by the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News have exposed the shadowy but growing industry that sells electronic spy gear to governments known for violating human rights. The technology’s reach is very broad: governments can listen in on cell phone calls, use voice recognition to scan mobile networks, read emails and text messages, censor web pages, track one’s every movement using GPS, and can even change email contents while en route to a recipient. Some tools are installed using the same type of malicious malware and spyware used by online criminals to steal credit card and banking information. They can secretly turn on webcams built into personal laptops and microphones in unused cell phones. And all of this information is filtered and organized on such a massive scale that it can be used to spy on every person in an entire country.
Ordinary citizens, journalists, human rights campaigners and democracy advocates have all been targeted, eviscerating privacy rights and chilling free speech. Ample evidence suggests information acquired through this spy gear appears has played a role in the harassment, threats, and even torture of journalists, human rights campaigners, and democracy activists. Yet dozens of companies from the U.S. and E.U continue to sell this technology, including to authoritarian regimes. The market for surveillance equipment has grown to a staggering $5 billion a year.
Dutch member of the EU Parliament Marietje Schaake has been trying to spearhead an effort to curb sales of this type of technology to repressive regimes. In September, the EU parliament passed a resolution proposed by Ms. Schaake which called on European countries to regulate sales of this dangerous surveillance tools if they can be used in human rights violations. She has also asked the European Commission to investigate sales by these companies to the governments of Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Tunisia and Egypt. On Wednesday, EFF will be testifying at a workshop for Committee of International Trade and Committee on Foreign Affairs, co-chaired by Ms. Schaake. Here is part of what we will say: