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EU: Enact Controls on Digital Weapons Trade

Unregulated Export of Powerful Surveillance Tools Threatens Internet Freedom

(Brussels) – The European Union should enact new controls on internet surveillance technologies that have enabled human rights violations, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders said today. The European Parliament adopted a new digital freedom strategy in EU foreign policy in the plenary on December 11.

Marietje Schaake, a Dutch Member of the European Parliament and its Rapporteur for the Digital Freedom Strategy in EU foreign policy, has proposed controls over internet surveillance tools as part of a critical report on the role of European exporters of such technologies and the impact on human rights. Schaake said that these technologies need to be regulated just “as we verify the quality of foods and medicine, or conventional weapons.”

“European governments praise citizen journalists for risking their lives to break human rights news from authoritarian states online, but fail to regulate European companies that supply those repressive governments with the technology to spy on those activists,” said Matthias Spielkamp, a member of the Reporters Without Borders Germany board. “We need more transparency about which companies are delivering censorship technology to authoritarian countries, and we need laws that clearly govern this kind of trade.”

The virtually unregulated trade in spyware that allows abusive governments to identify and target critics or citizen journalists is one of the most pernicious threats to internet freedom and modern-day human rights activism, the groups said. European governments should adopt a harmonized approach to control the export of the worst kinds of surveillance technologies since so much of it is coming from European companies. The fact that the EU has banned the export ofsurveillance technology to Syria and Iran was a start, but is not sufficient, the groups said.

Online surveillance poses an increasing threat to journalists, bloggers, citizen journalists, and human rights defenders. In 2011, Wikileaks released several hundred documents showing the breadth and sophistication of technologies sold at international surveillance trade fairs. Subsequent analysis by Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, and security researchers at technology research center Citizen Lab revealed that technology used to target suspected dissidents and human rights activists in Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya often came from European companies. These software programs can nest unnoticed on the victim’s computer, usually through infected file attachments or fake software updates.

Once installed, these technologies allow governments to access the content of hard drives, obtain passwords, and even view the contents of encrypted e-mails or chat messages. In addition, files can subsequently be placed on computers without the owner’s knowledge. Some companies explicitly contact state actors such as intelligence agencies and security authorities to offer these technologies. However, it is unclear whether these companies consider the human rights records of governments they work with as they export surveillance technologies around the world.
“It is irresponsible and even negligent for companies to market powerful surveillance technologies to abusive governments without considering the human rights impact or whether it is even appropriate to provide those goods and services,” said Cynthia Wong, senior researcher on the internet and human rights at Human Rights Watch. “European governments shouldn’t just leave these decisions to the private sector. They need to act to regulate the trade in these technologies.”

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