NGOs: No More Surveillance Technologies for Authoritarian Governments!

The export of surveillance equipment is becoming big business for Italian and international companies - business that puts activists and journalists working under authoritarian regimes in harm's way.

The Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights and other NGOs have appealed to the Italian Minister of Economic Development (MISE) concerning the export license granted to Area SpA, an Italian company producing surveillance technologies sold to foreign governments, including Syria.

The case of Area SpA

Other organizations committed to advocating for human rights protection in the digital field, such as the Hermes Center for Transparency and Digital Human Rights and Access Now, joined CILD in this initiative, with the aim of focusing attention on the issues that arise from the lack of adequate transparency surrounding the export of dual-use technologies.

Such technologies are closely monitored by these NGOs because they can be used both for civil and military purposes; therefore, they are of particular interest to many authoritarian governments.

Area SpA, for instance, was authorized to sell communications surveillance technologies to the Egyptian intelligence agency Technical Research Department (TRD). After the alarm raised by CILD and Hermes, the MISE suspended the company's export license to Egypt.

Similar remarks on the risks and issues related to the lack of transparency on the services provided by such companies have also been considered at the European level.

The situation is further complicated by the ineffectiveness of European regulations on the matter, by the difficulty of having a complete prospect of the kinds of products exported and, most importantly, by the lack of information about the purchasing governments.

The need for more transparency

The Italian case clearly shows that activists, human rights advocates, journalists and any other user cannot be sufficiently safeguarded from cyber-surveillance technologies by the regulation in place.

The use of tools such as spyware in order to control and attack activists and dissidents has been reported in Mexico as well, and CILD pointed out that another Italian company, Hacking Team, used to have Mexican governmental agencies among its clients.

The only way of protecting digital and communication rights is to increase transparency on the export licenses granted to companies like Area Spa.