NSO Group human rights

EU: Leak reveals states are ready to put human rights defenders at risk to protect surveillance industry


Brussels, BE — EU member states must back proposed curbs on the export of surveillance equipment to abusive regimes, Access Now, Amnesty International, and Reporters Without Borders said, after leaked documents published by digital rights reporters at netzpolitik.org and Reporters Without Borders revealed that several EU countries, particularly Sweden and Finland, are pushing for weakening human rights protections in relation to European export controls of surveillance technology.

The current EU system fails to hold European governments and companies to account. It is devastating to see that protecting the privacy of individuals and safeguarding freedom of expression around the globe are not on the list of priorities of the Council of the EU,” said Lucie Krahulcova, Policy Analyst at Access Now.

These leaks reveal that while the EU talks the talk on human rights in public, behind the scenes, member states are secretly ready to trade in their obligations to protect human rights defenders for the sake of business interests. They would give businesses free rein to sell to abusive governments technologies which can tap into the communications and whereabouts of those who speak up against them,” said Nele Meyer, Senior Executive Officer at Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office.

Commercially available surveillance technology is used by governments around the world to spy on activists, journalists, and dissidents.

The willingness of some countries to go on with business as usual by supplying despotic regimes with tools to abuse human rights is shocking. Jamal Khashoggi’s death has highlighted the level of pressure and surveillance endured by journalists. The EU must end the sale of tools which are used  to spy on, harass and arrest journalists. These technologies threaten the safety of journalists and their sources and thereby force them into self-censorship,” said Elodie Vialle, the head of Journalism and Technology desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Amnesty International, Privacy International, Access Now, and Reporters Without Borders are urging member states to ensure that surveillance technology will only be exported if the sale complies with solid human rights criteria.



After surveillance technology was used to clamp down on Arab spring protests, international civil society organizations and EU parliamentarians called for a meaningful overhaul of export controls to prevent that EU companies provide repressive governments with the technology to abuse rights. In 2016, the European Commission proposed reforms to the current export control system – the Dual Use Regulation – intended “to prevent human rights violations associated with certain cyber-surveillance technologies.”

The documents leaked today reveal how several member states are constantly watering down the human rights protections which the Commission and the Parliament proposed.

Amnesty International, Privacy International, Access Now, and Reporters Without Borders were among the NGOs advocating for the strengthening of several of these protections, including: strengthened human rights protections, greater scope to cover new surveillance technologies, greater transparency, and protections for security research.

Many of these reforms were reflected, in some form, in the proposal adopted by the European Parliament in early 2018.

For the revision to come into effect, the three EU institutions must find agreement on a final text through inter-institutional negotiations called trialogues, once member states within the Council attain a joint position.

As the leaked internal documents from the German government and EU Council show, a group of member states toppled the so-called catch all clause, a crucial safeguard requiring companies to inform the Commission in cases where they identify human rights risks linked to their surveillance exports.

Currently, a growing group of member states – led by Sweden and Finland – is tackling another central element of the reform, a list of surveillance technology for which a licensing process would be mandatory.

Legislators are working under a tight timeframe; if the revised regulation is not adopted by early 2019, it risks being delayed by at least another year due to the forthcoming EU elections. The next negotiations in the Council will take place in November 2018.