Reporters Without Borders reiterates its condemnation of the criminal cooperation between western hi-tech companies and authoritarian regimes, which is receiving renewed attention after the WikiLeaks website Thursday posted the “SpyFiles”, a series of documents shedding light on the scale of the 5-billion-dollar international market in mass surveillance and interception.
Around 1,100 internal documents involving 160 companies in 25 countries are being made available to the international public by WikiLeaks in partnership with five news media – OWNI, The Washington Post, The Hindu, L’Espresso and ARD – and a British NGO, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
The surveillance tools sold by these companies are used all over the world by armed forces, intelligence agencies, democratic governments and repressive regimes. The leading exporters of these technologies include the United States, France, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom and Israel. Among the companies singled out are BlueCoat (United States), Elaman (Germany), Gamma (United Kingdom), Amesys and Qosmos (France) and Aera SpA (Italy). An interactive map shows the countries and companies involved.
The equipment and software on offer constitute a vast arsenal of surveillance resources. Any computer or mobile phone can be physically located, remotely hacked, or infected with a Trojan by means of telephone surveillance tools (SMS, calls and geolocation) Internet surveillance and analysis tools (email and browsing), voice analysis and cyber-attacks.
“These new revelations by WikiLeaks provide confirmation and better documentation of the disgraceful cooperation between western companies and authoritarian regimes, which are being buffeted by the waves from the Arab Spring and want to control their dissidents at all costs,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“By equipping oppressive regimes and giving them the means to track and arrest cyber-dissidents and human rights activists, these companies become the accomplices of serious crimes. It is time to end the impunity they enjoy and to impose financial sanctions on them.”
Reporters Without Borders reiterates the proposal it made on 2 September for the creation of mechanisms under which companies that supply technological support to dictators guilty of war crimes can be referred to the International Criminal Court (LINK).
Reporters Without Borders also urges the governments of the countries concerned to adopt effective measures to regulate this market and to prevent the export of technology, equipment and software to countries where they are likely to be used to violate freedom of expression and human rights.
Companies should also establish monitoring mechanisms to ensure that equipment supplied to a “permitted” country is not subsequently transferred to one that is not. These regulations should also be adopted at the European Union level and by international organizations such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Chris Smith, a Republican member of the US House of Representatives, is currently preparing a new version of his proposed Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA), which would ban the export of these technologies to countries such as Syria and Iran that restrict online free expression and target dissidents.
The European version of the GOFA which Dutch MEP Jules Maaten of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe submitted to the European Parliament in 2008 aims to forestall online censorship possibilities and to regulate the potentially repressive activities of European Internet companies. It needs to be modified to take account of the latest revelations and to reinforce the proposed regulatory mechanisms.
The Sakharov Network of former winners of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which met in Brussels on 23 November at the invitation of European Parliament president Jerzy Buzek, was very firm in its condemnation of the involvement of private-sector companies in providing systems for monitoring and spying on the Internet and mobile phone networks.
The Sakharov Prize laureates were unanimous in stressing the need for rapid action by the European Union to adopt clear and binding rules and legislation to regulate this sector. They also encouraged the European Parliament to follow up on the initial step it took in October when it adopted a resolution opposing the sale of surveillance resources and technology to countries that would use them to violate democratic principles, freedom of expression and human rights.
Two examples from the SpyFiles
WikiLeaks has published the contract that Amesys, a subsidiary of the French company Bull, signed with the Gaddafi regime. Last September, The Wall Street Journal and BBC reporters found documents in Col. Gaddafi’s headquarters showing that Amesys had provided the regime with very sophisticated surveillance equipment. It included a system called “Eagle” for intercepting Hotmail, Gmail and Yahoo! emails and monitoring MSN and AIM instant messaging.
The Italian company Area SpA is currently installing a very elaborate Internet surveillance system in Syria called Asfador that is thought to be costing Bashar Al-Assad’s government more than 10 million euros. When operational, it would enable the regime to monitor all email exchanges anywhere on the Syrian Internet and to access the personal data of users. Area SpA employs technology provided by other western companies including the French company Qosmos, which recently pulled out of the project. Its withdrawal has not however stopped the project from going ahead.