Private companies are developing and selling surveillance systems to countries around the world, often with little thought about the consequences of their international exports. A global coalition has been formed, calling on them to take responsibility for their actions, and ensure that their technologies aren’t being used to facilitate human rights abuses on the other side of the world.
The increase in the use of intrusive surveillance technologies, and the fate of the Edward Snowdens of this world, who expose their highly-questionable use, has been a recurring story on the global news agenda for several years now. But while the fact that governments might be able to intercept your WhatsApp messages or open the email inbox of a whole population is worrying enough, the export of unlawful surveillance equipment to certain countries can have much more serious consequences.
Recent cases, such as the controversy surrounding the French company Amesys that was accused of supplying surveillance equipment to the Gaddafi regime, and the news from Syria that an Italian company had been providing President Bashar al-Assad with technology that allowed him to intercept and monitor communications throughout the country, have raised the issue of the accountability of ICT companies that supply products to countries with a less-than-perfect human rights record.
These cases, and many more, form part of an alarming trend which has been given the title of the digital arms trade, a global network of ICT imports and exports whereby technologies sold by Western countries enable the monitoring, surveillance and censorship of communications and are thus complicit in human rights abuses and political and social repression. In order to tackle this problem, a group of leading civil society groups got together to form CAUSE, the Coalition Against Unlawful Surveillance Exports, which calls on governments to regulate this trade, and encourage companies to take on moral responsibility for the use, and abuse, of their technologies.
CAUSE brings together NGOs such as Amnesty International with groups that generally focus on digital rights, such as Privacy International, showing that there is a broad base of recognition for this issue, and an international group has formed to tackle it. And regulating the trade of these technologies is no easy feat: because so many of them aren’t all bad. While some may be used to geolocate and track innocent people’s phones, or block their access to websites, others are used to track criminals and manage spam.
For more information about the campaign and to see an interactive map of where different surveillance technologies have ended up, just visit visit CAUSE’s official website.