San Francisco - It's time for technology companies that sell surveillance and filtering equipment to step up and ensure they aren't helping governments in committing human rights violations. In a white paper released today entitled "Human Rights and Technology Sales," EFF outlines how corporations can avoid assisting repressive regimes.

The paper calls on companies to increase transparency of their dealings with potentially repressive regimes and to implement "Know Your Customer" standards for auditing technology sales, including review of the purchasing government's technical questions and customization requests. If the review indicates that the technologies or transactions may be used to facilitate human rights violations, the company should refrain from participating.

"Authoritarian governments around the world often rely on technologies built in North America and Europe to spy on their citizens – including listening in to cell phone calls, scanning crowd photographs with facial recognition tools, and monitoring mobile networks with voice recognition technology. These can have deadly ramifications for activists and others in repressive regimes," said EFF Director for International Freedom of Expression Jillian York. "We're asking companies to take responsibility for the uses that governments make of their products, instead of acting like 'repression's little helper.'"

There is ample evidence that sophisticated technology facilitates human rights abuses, and dozens of corporations are implicated. For example, Narus – a subsidiary of The Boeing Company – was revealed to have sold sophisticated surveillance equipment to Egypt, and California's Blue Coat Systems' equipment was being used in Syria. On the other hand, companies such as Websense have implemented programs to prevent their tools from being complicit in human rights abuses.

In the meantime, Congress has taken note of the problem. A House subcommittee has passed the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA), which would require disclosure from companies about their human rights practices and limit the export of technologies that "serve the primary purpose of" facilitating government surveillance or censorship to countries designated as "Internet-restricting."

"GOFA is far from perfect, but it's an important step in protecting human rights and freedom of expression around the world," said EFF Activist Trevor Timm. "Tools available today can allow governments to track and spy every person in a country. Other software can block entire categories of websites, preventing citizens from accessing vital information. Technology companies have a responsibility to try to prevent their services from being used in this way."

For the full white paper "Human Rights and Technology Sales":

For more on the Global Online Freedom Act:

Cindy Cohn
   Legal Director
   Electronic Frontier Foundation

Trevor Timm
   Electronic Frontier Foundation