Demonstrators carry signs at "Stop Watching Us: A Rally Against Mass Surveillance" march near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, October 26, 2013.

© 2013 Reuters

Countries known for abusing human rights will no longer be able to legally source their surveillance technology from Europe, making it more difficult for dictators and oppressive governments to use the latest tools to spy on people.

This follows significant reporting and advocacy by Human Rights Watch, Privacy International, and other members of the Coalition Against Unlawful Surveillance Exports (CAUSE), a group of NGOs.

The new EU regulation, backed strongly by Germany, covers mass and intrusive surveillance systems that can secretly intercept all electronic communications – including email, phone, text, Skype, and social media. Few countries globally produce this type of technology and the majority of producers are in Europe. Members of CAUSE have spotlighted how loose regulation allows certain governments to get their hands on this technology.

Human Rights Watch documented how the Ethiopian government uses foreign spyware to strengthen its widespread telecom surveillance of opposition activists and journalists – both in Ethiopia and abroad. The government has used foreign technology to record activists’ private phone conversations, and then arrest them for speaking about their political beliefs.

Over the past 10 years, countries with troubling rights records, including Bahrain, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Oman, have purchased surveillance technology made in German, Italian, UK, and France, according to CAUSE.

During and in the lead up to a major EU-wide review of its export policy this past year, CAUSE members spotlighted the human rights consequences of loose surveillance technology regulation, leading to a rare joint hearing of trade and human rights Parliamentary Committees to discuss the future direction of EU trade in this industry. The result: the EU is updating its export controls to recognize and protect against the harms of exporting mass surveillance technology without any accountability.

Germany, which has already taken significant steps to restrict sales of surveillance technology to states that fail to respect their citizens' human rights, is leading the charge for European Union member states to regulate the export of surveillance technology. Germany identified Russia and Turkey as two end destinations that would be affected by this policy change.

Human Rights Watch and other CAUSE members continue to press for meaningful and efficient implementation of the regulations. This March, a new UN special rapporteur on privacy was added, strengthening the push to respect privacy in the digital age. CAUSE will continue to advocate for greater action, including for EU members to push for stronger human rights protections related to export technologies.