Don't send spy technology to abusive regimes, including Egypt: Rights groups

Ahram Online , Tuesday 2 Dec 2014

Open letter calls on signatories of global export agreement to not send surveillance technology to known rights abusers

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Seven international human rights and digital watchdogs have called on signatories of a global export agreement to tackle the "alarming proliferation" of surveillance technologies being sent to oppressive states, including Egypt.

The organisations, which include Human Rights Watch and Privacy International, said surveillance technology is not always harmful, but is often used as "a tool of repression" by governments that abuse human rights.

The open letter was addressed to the 41 members of the Wassenaar Arrangement, an international convention which promotes transparency and restrictions in the export of technology, arms and products that can be used in both civilian life and the army.

"Governments with internationally condemned human rights records such as Bahrain, Ethiopia, Egypt, Turkmenistan, Libya, Syria and Iran have all purchased surveillance technologies from private companies, and have used them to facilitate a variety of human rights violations," read the letter.

"More and more stories emerge showing these damaging and often unlawful technologies affecting political activists, human rights defenders, refugees, dissidents and journalists, with some technologies placing entire populations under surveillance."

Egypt's interior ministry announced earlier in June it would implement a social media surveillance programme to track security threats such as terrorism—sparking ire on social media and among rights groups.

Dismissing fear of a cyber-crackdown, the government said the controversial measure would operate in line with the law, stressing that private accounts will only be accessed upon a court order and that surveillance will only include public media.

The interior ministry was infamous for spying on citizens under deposed president Hosni Mubarak to quash political dissent. Egyptian authorities have arrested several suspects charged with inciting violence against the police and army, targeted in a mounting Islamist insurgency, in recent months.

The letter on Monday condemned the largely lax regulations on the global market of such products, saying there are being openly displayed at trade shows in the UK, US, France and the UAE, among other countries.

The groups also criticised the governments for providing additional technology connected to intrusion software and IP monitoring to a list of dual-use goods and technology, despite the known effects of these systems on human rights.

"Technologies such as undersea fibre-optic cable taps, monitoring centres and mass voice/speaker recognition technologies urgently need to be examined for their impact on human rights and internal repression, particularly when the end user is a government known for committing human rights violations."

Another reason for alarm, the groups say, is that civil society organisations and independent professionals are not allowed to contribute to the Wessenaar Agreement Forum, arguing that the debate over the matter should not continue in a "closed forum manner" in order to ensure proper controls are introduced.

The statement called on governments to be transparent in what they export and to not export licenses for surveillance technology to countries "where they are likely to be used in an unlawful manner."

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