For years, there’s been ample evidence that authoritarian governments around the world are relying on technology produced by American, Canadian, and European companies to facilitate human rights abuses. From software that enables the filtering and blocking of online content to tools that help governments spy on their citizens, many such companies are actively serving autocratic governments as "repression’s little helper."
The reach of these technologies is astonishingly 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 a citizen’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 cell phones not being used. 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.
This is a phenomenon that spans the globe and implicates dozens of corporations. Over the past year, and partly in response to the uprisings that have swept the Arab world, concerns about these exports have been amplified in media reports and by digital rights organizations, sparking a debate as to the appropriate course of action.
For example, Narus, a Boeing subsidiary, was revealed to have sold to Egypt sophisticated equipment used for surveillance. California’s BlueCoat Systems, Inc was found to have equipment being used in Syria.
Germany-based Trovicor has sold technology to a dozen Middle Eastern and North African countries, including Bahrain, dozens of activists were tortured before and after being shown transcripts of their text messages and phone conversations captured from this technology.
Cisco Systems is facing litigation in both Maryland and California based on its alleged sales of surveillance equipment to the Chinese to track, monitor and otherwise facilitate the arrest, detention, or disappearance of human rights activists and religious minorities who have been subjected to gross human rights violations. EFF has issued a petition calling on Cisco to stop aiding China's human rights abuses.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation believes that it's time for Western governments to investigate companies that have allegedly assisted in human rights violations, and the technology companies selling mass surveillance equipment must step up and ensure that they aren’t assisting foreign governments in committing human rights violations against their own people.
EFF has proposed the EU and US governments adopt robust "Know Your Customer" standards. A blueprint of our proposed standards, including detailed definitions and implantation guidelines, is available here.
- EFF's Surveillance Self-Defense International project
- Bloomberg’s Wired For Repression investigative series
- The Wall Street Journal’s Censorship Inc. investigative series
- WikiLeaks’ SpyFiles
- Privacy International’s Surveillance Who’s Who project