Tech & Rights

Rights Groups Sink Italian Surveillance Company's Deal With Egypt

The company's contract to export surveillance systems to Egyptian government has been stopped after human rights groups urged the Italian Ministry of Economic Development to reconsider the plan.

by Federica Brioschi
The Italian Coalition for Civil Rights and Freedoms (CILD), Privacy International and Hermes Center for Transparency and Digital Human Rights wrote to the Ministry of Economic Development (MISE) seeking urgent assurances and action after reports that a surveillance company has been allowed to export an internet surveillance system to a shadowy government agency in Egypt.

The surveillance company is Area SpA, which was reportedly raided by Italian law enforcement for having aided the Syrian government to carry out an ambitious surveillance project to monitor the national communications infrastructure.

Threats to the Egyptian civil society

In the last few months, there has been an increasing clampdown on legitimate dissent, freedom of expression and overall the capacity of human rights defenders to operate in Egypt. Various UN human rights independent expert bodies, including the UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and human rights defenders and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, have expressed serious concern regarding the deterioration of human right in the country.

The EU Parliament passed a resolution on March 10, 2016, calling for "the suspension of any form of security cooperation with Egyptian authorities" considering the recent backdrop of human rights violations, including torture, deaths in custody and enforced disappearances across the country, while the Council of the EU in 2013 stated that "Member States also agreed to suspend export licenses to Egypt of any equipment which might be used for internal repression."

In June 2016, a report published in La Stampa stated that Area SpA had been granted an export license by the Italian export control authorities to export internet surveillance equipment to the Technical Research Department (TRD) in Egypt. As La Stampa reported, the surveillance system was initially commissioned by Alkan Communication and Information Technology, a Cairo-based company that acts as an intermediary with the TRD, a branch of the Egyptian intelligence apparatus.

The surveillance system that is being exported can collect, store, and analyze information about large numbers of people, often without any regard to whether they are legally suspected of wrongdoing. In countries with weak rule of law and under the control of an authoritarian government, these systems are wielded to violate the right to privacy, and pose a serious threat to privacy and other human rights.

Our requests

In our letter, sent to the MISE as well as key committees and parliamentarians, we argue that the export of an IP network communications surveillance system to the TRD poses a clear risk to human rights.

PI, CILD, and the Italian chapter of Transparency International previously wrote to MISE in July 2015 after another Italian surveillance company, Hacking Team, were themselves hacked and found to have been exporting hacking software around the world, including to numerous authoritarian countries with records of severe human rights abuses. In the letter, we urged clarification as to how the agency was regulating the export of Hacking Team’s systems, and whether they were paying sufficient attention to human rights considerations and obligations.

Since international regulations agreed at the Wassenaar Arrangement came into effect in Italy in January 2015, MISE was required to regulate Hacking Team’s software, but had granted the company a more permissive general export license allowing it to export around the world with only periodic reporting and oversight requirements

Given the information available on the use of IP network communications surveillance systems for human rights abuses and the deteriorating human rights protection in Egypt, we asked that the authority urgently provides several assurances, including on the accuracy of the reports, whether they accept the accuracy of reports detailing the human rights situation in Egypt, and whether they carried out sufficient human rights due diligence prior to granting the license. PI and CILD asked whether the authorities would have revoked the license given the human rights concerns.

The Ministry’s answer

The Ministry of Economic Development promptly answered our letter with an official note stating that the authorization had been re-examined and, following this re-examination, suspended. Moreover, it specified that in a following meeting of the consulting Committee the authorization will be permanently revoked.

We appreciate the effort of the Ministry and we will keep our focus on this case to verify how the next events will unfold.

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