Over the past year or two, someone has been probing the defenses of the companies that run critical pieces of the Internet. These probes take the form of precisely calibrated attacks designed to determine exactly how well these companies can defend themselves, and what would be required to take them down. We don’t know who is doing this, but it feels like a large nation state. China or Russia would be my first guesses.
The market for surveillance technologies has expanded so much in recent years that oversight has been totally unable to keep up, which has led to devastating consequences in the lives of human rights defenders in repressive regimes around the world.
According to a new study released today by Privacy International, the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, and Digitale Gesellschaft, international efforts to oversee the trade in surveillance technologies are out-dated and urgently need to be updated in order to keep up in the digital age. Ensuring that export regulations are fit for purpose is a vital part of an overall strategy to ensure the surveillance industry does not continue to trample upon human rights and facilitate internal repression.
Ineffective and outdated controls on these tools allow for authoritarian governments to acquire mass and intrusive spying in an uncontrolled market, enabling them to target political activists, silence opposition voices, suppress the media, and commit human rights abuses.
Uncontrolled Global Surveillance
The premise that export policies and export control systems should reflect the dangers related to the proliferation of surveillance technologies has been recognised by various national, regional, and international bodies. However, without an international agreement in place that commits states to ensuring companies operating within their jurisdiction do not sell surveillance technology to human rights abusers, current efforts to this end have been piecemeal and disparate.
The study, “Uncontrolled Global Surveillance: Updating Export Controls to the Digital Age”, looks at trade regulations related to surveillance technologies in the UK, US, and Germany, three countries with a large share of this market. It also details efforts made at EU level to control the trade in surveillance technologies, and provides an analysis of the key multilateral export control regime related to the industry – the Wassenaar Arrangement – and the implications of recent efforts by the forum to control surveillance technologies.
Exports controls by themselves will not fix the problem, nor should all surveillance technology be subjected to licensing requirements. Government regulation can have a negative impact on technology, innovation, and trade, as demonstrated by the “Crypto Wars” of the 1990’s. As a result, what is needed is targeted and careful policy analysis, with clear and carefully-crafted controls, as well as accompanied by regular updates and feedback loops allowing input from non-governmental sources.
The report is an invaluable source for understanding the current policy and regulatory landscape, and will prove instrumental for civil society, governments, and industry alike as they engage in this debate and explore or advocate for changes to existing regulations.