Brussels, BE — Nine European Union (EU) member states are attempting to block curbs on the export of surveillance equipment to abusive regimes, in a retrograde move that could threaten human rights around the world, Access Now, Amnesty International, Privacy International, and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said today.
A position paper leaked to the media reveals that the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Sweden, and the UK are in favour of weakening human rights protections, in relation to surveillance exports, which were included in a Commission proposal and strengthened last year by the European Parliament.
“For too long EU businesses have been equipping repressive states with sophisticated surveillance technology which allows them to spy on and persecute activists, journalists and anyone else who speaks out against human rights abuses,” said Joshua Franco, Technology and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International.
Lucie Krahulcova, Policy Analyst at Access Now, said: “Last year the European Parliament took a major step towards reining in this dangerous trade by pushing for stronger regulations. In attempting to undermine this progress, these nine states are siding with profits over people and lending their support to human rights abusers who rely on the EU’s lax regulations to silence their critics.”
“This is a step backward for press freedom and protection of journalists’ sources. Today, journalists are being spied on or arrested with the help of European surveillance technologies, which discourages the exchange of information. EU member states have to enforce stronger, not weaker export control standards to protect journalists worldwide,” added Elodie Vialle, Head of Journalism & Technology at RSF.
Although the position paper recognizes the human rights risks associated with misuse of cyber surveillance technologies, it attacks several of the proposals by the Commission and Parliament explicitly aimed at protecting against human rights abuses.
For example, it argues against a new EU list requiring export licenses for new categories of surveillance technology, and against proposed requirements which could mean that licenses are denied where exports would harm human rights.
Access Now, Amnesty International, Privacy International, and Reporters Without Borders are calling on the Council of the EU to reject the positions set out in the working paper, and instead work towards putting human rights protections at the heart of a strong and comprehensive EU regulation on surveillance exports.
Commercially available surveillance technology is used by governments around the world to spy on activists, journalists, and dissidents. Earlier this month, Access Now revealed that European-made FinSpy malware has been used to target civil society in Turkey, Indonesia, Ukraine, and Venezuela. The NGO documented how fake Twitter accounts have been used to target activists and political opponents in Turkey, where an ongoing crackdown has seen hundreds of human rights defenders, including Amnesty staff, political activists and journalists imprisoned.
Access Now’s research is the latest in a string of scandals linked to surveillance exports. In the UAE, human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor was recently sentenced to 10 years in jail for his activism. Research by Citizen Lab has shown that in several instances Mansoor was targeted by EU-manufactured surveillance equipment, which is designed to access personal information and monitor a target’s communications.
Last month, records obtained by Privacy International showed that Finland, one of the signatories of the position paper, had granted over 80 export licenses for telecommunications interception equipment, including to the UAE and Mexico, where it was reported last year that security authorities have been using commercially available surveillance technology to target prominent lawyers, journalists, and anti-corruption activists.
“EU surveillance exports have already caused enormous damage, and as spying technology advances so will its potential for harm. Without meaningful human rights protections, EU member states risk facilitating crackdowns like the ones playing out in Turkey and Mexico,” said Joshua Franco.
Proposals by the Commission and the European Parliament would require governments to assess the risk of abuse in recipient countries before they can be provided with spyware. This would be an important step towards bringing surveillance exports in line with the EU and member states’ human rights obligations, and we are calling on the Council to push ahead with this approach despite the cynical opposition expressed in this paper.
The four NGOs note that the position paper signals support for increased transparency measures across the union, something which activists have been campaigning in favour of, arguing that it will allow the public, activists and journalists to monitor all exports of regulated surveillance technology by EU Member States.
International civil society organizations and parliamentarians have called for meaningful reform of export regulations to protect human rights against unlawful surveillance.
In 2016, the European Commission proposed reforms to the current system intended “to prevent human rights violations associated with certain cyber-surveillance technologies.”
Amnesty International, Privacy International, and Reporters Without Borders were among the NGOs who advocated 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 late 2017.
The Council’s position is expected in the second half of the year. The three institutions will attempt to reach agreement through inter-institutional negotiations called trilogues.