End to privacy? Western firms hawk mass surveillance technology to developing world
Human rights groups are sounding alarms as Western firms sell mass surveillance technology in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, equipping governments and companies new capabilities to snoop on citizens.
Despite the public outcry over mass global surveillance being carried out by the NSA and the GCHQ, brought to light in May by US whistleblower Edward Snowden, the scandal has not prevented tech companies and countries from closing contracts on spy technology.
That was the conclusion by Privacy International, a surveillance technology watchdog that has spent four years studying over 1,000 brochures and seminars used at technology fairs in major cities around the world, including in Dubai, Prague, Brasilia, Kuala Lumpur, Paris and London, the Guardian reported.
Researchers listed themselves as potential buyers to gain access to the private conventions.
On the basis of its findings, the watchdog released the Surveillance Industry Index, which shows how tech firms from Germany, France, Israel, the UK and US offer governments a broad array of systems that allow them to secretly monitor email and phone communications.
The index provides details from 338 companies, including 77 from the UK, offering governments around the world a total of 97 different types of technology to choose from.
One firm proudly touts its “massive passive monitoring” equipment, which can “capture up to 1 billion intercepts a day,” the report says. Others sell cameras that can be concealed in cola cans or children’s car seats, while one firm offers to transform vehicles into surveillance control centers.
Since the companies promote the new technology as a means to help governments defeat terrorism and crime, there appears to be nothing illegal about the services.
Meanwhile, despite the international scorn heaped on the United States for collecting meta-data on millions of communications around the world, as well as monitoring the phone calls of world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, this does not seem to have a cooling effect on sales.
Indeed, there is no lack of demand for this ‘off the shelf’ equipment that will give more governments the power to spy on emails, text messages and phone calls – capabilities that have become associated with government agencies such as GCHQ (General Communications Headquarters) and the NSA (National Security Agency).
One Dubai-based tech company provides DIY system similar to GCHQ’s Tempora program, which hacks into fiber-optic cables to retrieve private data.
Privacy International says manufacturers of surveillance technology should be regulated just like arms manufacturers.
“There is a culture of impunity permeating across the private surveillance market, given that there are no strict export controls on the sale of this technology, as there are on the sale of conventional weapons,”Matthew Rice, research consultant with Privacy International, told the British newspaper.
“This market profits off the suffering of people around the world, yet it lacks any sort of effective oversight or accountability.
“This lack of regulation has allowed companies to export surveillance technology to countries that use their newly acquired surveillance capability to spy on human rights activists, journalists and political movements,” Rice concluded.
Privacy International hopes its research into firms that sell surveillance equipment to governments around the world will spark a debate on regulating these powers that present a grave threat to privacy everywhere.