Surveillance technology companies are arms dealers, says researcher

Tools

Technology companies that market tools for the surveillance of citizens are hurting civil society in much the same way as weapons traffickers, says Rebecca MacKinnon, senior research fellow at the New America Foundation.

"There are companies that may be incentivized through other means to behave responsibly, but there are other companies that are basically arms dealers and they are selling technologies that are empowering bad people and that are contributing to an Internet that is not human-rights compatible in much of the world," said MacKinnon during a March 24, event hosted by the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Unfortunately, the solutions are as complicated as the technologies and today's geopolitical landscape, she added.

The problem first came to light during the Arab Spring, when it became clear that surveillance-specific technology, that was largely created in the West, was being used by Lybia, Syria and Iran to censor and spy on the citizenry. Its export is virtually unregulated, said Arvind Ganesan, director of business and human rights division at Human Rights Watch.

"There is such technology out there that could be used for legitimate law enforcement or intelligence purposes but probably won't be for two reasons," said Ganesan.

"One is, you can only sell to a government once and then you have to find another government customer and not every government is going to respect the rule of law or people's rights when they buy this technology. And two, it's inherently problematic because it's set up to spy and to censor," he said.

The European Union has addressed the problem somewhat, by default. It has broad sanctions against Iran and Syria that encompass an array of goods, but Marietje Schaake, member of the European Parliament, is somewhat encouraged that they call out surveillance technology specifically.

The EU has not, however, addressed the sale of surveillance technology to other countries that don't fall under a broader sanction.

"In my opinion the status quo is not acceptable and by criticizing every potential regulation, we're not getting much further," said Schaake.

"I believe the focus should be on the trade part of things, so the transaction between the companies and buyers, who are often states and law enforcement agencies," said Schaake.

"Between those two you could, for example, put a licensing requirement where it's clear for companies and governments alike, what is being traded, what the capacities are, and whether this is in accordance with the law or not. And this transparency would really add a lot already that is lacking right now," she said.

Another problem is that trade regulations are often very fragmented. While sanctions are decided upon at an EU level, enforcement happens at the state level.

"All of this kind of gives a patchwork of regulations," said Schaake.

Ensuring consistency would be an important element to addressing surveillance technology trade regulation.

For more:
- go to the event page (includes archive webcast and speaker information)

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