Big Brother is listening—with tools Europe sold him?

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Are emails, cell phone records and SMS transcripts the latest additions to the tyrant’s arsenal?

In the digital age, electronic information seems to be attracting the attention of human rights groups almost as often as rubber hoses, sleep deprivation and water boards and information activists are calling for a burgeoning “digital weapons” trade to be nipped in the bud.

There’s growing concern about the sale of internet surveillance technology to countries with questionable human rights records. Activists say companies supplying the technologies need to be exposed and regulated.

“Several European countries are supplying systems used to track and trace activists for repressive purposes,” says Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who is tasked with overseeing its Digital Freedom Strategy. “We need to know what is exported to whom.”

Shady deals
Schaake can’t even say if her own country is involved, hence “the need for greater accountability.” But investigative reports by Bloomberg, Reuters and other media outlets have implicated some companies and European countries. German electronics giant Siemens is reported to have sold surveillance gear to Bahrain, which the US added to its list of human rights violators earlier this year.

Currently there are ad hoc sanctions against selling such spy systems to Iran and Syria. But Schaake, and NGOs such as Humans Rights Watch and Reporters without Borders, are calling on the European Union to regulate internet surveillance tools the way they “verify the quality of foods and medicine or conventional weapons.”

Double-edged sword
“The struggle for human rights increasingly has a technological component,” says Schaake, “It’s how countries grip and control populations.” On the flip side of the technological coin, those same electronic advances allow activists, bloggers and journalists in repressive regimes to get information out to the world and organise mass protests in real time. One only has to think of Iran’s 2009 post-election Green Movement and the Arab Spring of 2010.

“It’s a cat and mouse game,” says Schaake. “But I’ve talked to activists in jail who have been presented with mobile phone records and emails when they’re being tortured and asked to identify who they are in contact with. It makes it more difficult to protect sources and to work for democracy and a just society.”

Iran doesn’t even have a world wide web, she says, but uses a nationalised internet more akin to an intranet. “Everything is centralised and monitored.”

Digital spyware
Human rights groups say surveillance software programs can be introduced into a targeted person’s computer via infected attachments or false software uploads. From there, governments can access hard drive contents, encrypted e-mails or chats, obtain passwords and even upload files—all without the computer owner’s knowledge.

According to HRW, “Some companies explicitly contact state actors such as intelligence agencies and security authorities to offer these technologies.”

The surveillance spyware sold by Siemens AG to Bahrain was maintained by Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN). Bloomberg reports that NSN has divested from Trovicor, the unit that deals in the surveillance business.

New reality
“We are very aware that communications technology can be used for good and ill,” an NSN spokesman told Bloomberg in its August 2012 report. The risk of rights abuses, he said, was a big reason why NSN got out of the business and established a human rights policy and diligence programme. But the ultimate responsibility lies with “the people who use this technology to infringe human rights.”

MEP Schaake says the laws need to be updated to reflect the new reality we live in. “It’s also for our own vulnerability,” she says. Such technology “can be used against Europe, too, to track people here.”

RNW contacted Siemens for comment but has received no response.