(Brussels) – World leaders should make a commitment to keep invasive surveillance systems and technologies out of the hands of dictators and oppressive regimes, a new global coalition of human rights organizations said today as it announced its formation in Brussels.

The Coalition Against Unlawful Surveillance Exports (CAUSE) aims to hold governments and private companies accountable for abuses linked to the US$5 billion and growing international trade in communication surveillance technologies. Governments are increasingly using spying software, equipment, and related tools to violate the right to privacy and a host of other human rights.

“These technologies enable regimes to crush dissent or criticism, chill free speech and destroy fundamental rights,” said Ara Marcen Naval, advocacy coordinator at Amnesty International. “The CAUSE coalition has documented cases where communication surveillance technologies have been used, not only to spy on people’s private lives, but also to assist governments to imprison and torture their critics.”

The CAUSE coalition already has a global reach and will continue to expand. CAUSE is currently led by the following international groups: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Privacy International, and Reporters Without Borders, together with leading national groups Digitale Gesellschaft in Germany, and the Open Technology Institute in the United States.

“Through a growing body of evidence it’s clear to see how widely these surveillance technologies are used by repressive regimes to ride roughshod over individuals’ rights,” said Kenneth Page, Policy Officer at Privacy International. “The unchecked development, sale and export of these technologies is not justifiable. Governments must swiftly take action to prevent these technologies spreading into dangerous hands.” In an open letter published on April 4, 2014 on the CAUSE website, the groups express alarm at the virtually unregulated global trade in communications surveillance equipment.

The website details the various communication surveillance technologies that have been made and supplied by private companies and also highlights the countries where these companies are based. It shows these technologies have been found in a range of countries such as Bahrain, Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Libya, Nigeria, Morocco, Turkmenistan, UAE, and many more.

“Nobody is immune to the danger communication surveillance technologies poses to individual privacy and a host of other human rights,” said Karim Lahidji, president at FIDH.  “And those who watch today, will be watched tomorrow. The CAUSE has been created to call for responsible regulation of the trade and to put an end to the abuses it enables.”

Although a number of governments are beginning to discuss how to restrict this trade, concerns remain. Without sustained international pressure on governments to establish robust comprehensive controls on the trade based on international human rights standards, the burgeoning proliferation of this intrusive technology will continue – fuelling even further abuses, the coalition said.

“More and more journalists, netizens and dissidents are ending up in prison after their online communications are intercepted,” said Grégoire Pouget, head of new media at Reporters Without Borders. “The adoption of a legal framework that protects online freedoms is essential, both as regards the overall issue of Internet surveillance and the particular problem of firms that export surveillance products.”

The technologies include malware that allows surreptitious data extraction from personal devices; tools  to intercept telecommunications traffic; spygear to locate mobile phones; monitoring centers that allow authorities to track entire populations; anonymous listening and camera spying on computers and mobile phones; and devices used to tap undersea fiber-optic cables to enable mass internet monitoring and filtering.

“As members of the CAUSE coalition, we’re calling on governments to take immediate action to stop the proliferation of this dangerous technology and ensure the trade is effectively controlled and made fully transparent and accountable,” said Volker Tripp, advocacy manager at Digitale Gesellschaft.  

The organizations participating in CAUSE have researched how such technologies end up in the hands of security agencies with appalling human rights records, where they enable security agents to arbitrarily target journalists, protesters, independent groups, political opponents and others.

Cases documented by coalition members have included:

  • German surveillance technology being used to assist torture in Bahrain;
  • Malware made in Italy helping the Moroccan and UAE authorities to clamp down on free speech and imprison critics;
  • European companies exporting surveillance software to the government of Turkmenistan, a country notorious for violent repression of dissent; and
  • Surveillance technologies used internally in Ethiopia as well as to target the Ethiopian diaspora in Europe and the United States.

The right to privacy is enshrined in article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“We have seen the devastating impact these technologies have on the lives of individuals and the functioning of independent groups,” said Wenzel Michalski, Germany director at Human Rights Watch. “Inaction will further embolden blatantly irresponsible surveillance traders and security agencies, thus normalizing arbitrary state surveillance. We urge governments to come together and take responsible action quickly.”