Denfending the Defenders

Denfending Human Rights Defenders

This is a commerce of death for the companies that place this technology in the hands of dictatorships.” – Saeid Pourheydar, Iranian opposition journalist tortured at Evin Prison.

difendere i difensori

Too often the authorities of non-democratic countries try to silence the voices of human rights defenders, penalizing their activities and intimidating them, using weapons and technology from western democratic countries. Instead of protecting the crucial role they play in the promotion and protection of human rights, state agencies can label these individuals as subversive or traitors with serious consequences for their lives and their work.

The WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden revelations have illustrated the extent to which certain technologies are able to spy on phones and devices connected to the Internet on a global scale, giving names of companies that have been involved in this industry of mass surveillance by the annual value of more than $ 5 billion, and that has had a boom in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks. This includes companies that sell products able to offer to the end user a remote control on computers, like hackers do, allowing mass interception of communications.

Mass surveillance does not have clear proportions, which means that these technologies can lead to the violation of human rights, notably the right to privacy and freedom of expression. Malware attacks  (malicious softwares) are an increasing problem for targeted groups of human rights defenders, who may be particularly vulnerable due to limited resources or lack of security awareness. Those who know they are vulnerable targets should be careful when using email, Skype or other communication systems. In particular, in the emails you need to be vigilant about file attachments and links, even from friends.

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To maintain high security standards is crucial that activists and dissidents use special precautions concerned to handling sensitive data, anonymous surfing on the web and permanently deletion of data. A free software for data encryption is called TrueCrypt. For anonymous browsing you can use Tor, in this way you can get around with navigation blocks, or use hidden service functions to create anonymous blogs, leaking systems and management of confidential sources. Likewise the complete deletion of sensitive data from hard drives can be vital to a dissident – a free advanced security tool called Eraser could be of great help.

Because of the secret and confidential nature of their activities, companies in the private security sector have gradually gained a sense of impunity. The products of these companies have been found in Bahrain, Libya and Ethiopia, among other countries, and have been used to fight pro-democracy activists, journalists and political opposition. When citizens overthrew the dictatorships in Egypt and Libya, they found rooms properly equipped to spy them in their efforts both online and over the phone, where there were devices of various foreign companies: the British Gamma International, the French Amesys, the South African VASTech and the Chinese ZTE Corp.

Privacy International, a UK based charity that “defends the right to privacy across the world”, has created a freely accessible database, which lists 338 companies headquartered in Western countries that sell surveillance technologies to countries with repressive regimes that intend to use it as an instrument of political control. Matthew Rice of Privacy International said that sourveillance companies perform marketing and sales of the most powerful, dangerous and invasive surveillance technologies in the world, maintaining relations with repressive regimes to which they have sold their products. Examining the database turns out that at least 5 companies in the Milan area are directly involved in the sale of surveillance services to authoritarian governments: RCS from Milan; Digint from Garbagnate Milanese; Spektra from Busto Arsizio; Area from Vozzola Ticino and Hacking Team from Milan.

defending the defenders

Privacy International

Hacking Team located in via della Moscova in Milan declares on its website thath they “do not sell products to governments or to countries blacklisted by the U.S., E.U., U.N., NATO or ASEAN” but “only to government agencies” in order to “fight crime in six continents.” These statements are in stark contrast with a study carried out in 2013 by the NGO Citizen Lab, which shows that Mamfakinch.com, blog of Moroccan dissident activists, and Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist based in the United Arab Emirates, have been victims of the surveillance system sold by Hacking Team.

The Area company, was installing a $ 13 million worth surveillance system in Syria, but fortunately, after the start of the Arab Spring, a Bloomberg survey showed the underhand Area’s project forcing it back. We should not be surprised that Italian companies trade with Syria since Italy is the European country that sells more military equipement to Bashar al-Assad, whom use it against civilians and rebels.

The European Union and its members were awarded of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for “progress in the peace and reconciliation” and for ensuring “democracy and human rights.” Europe can not make a double play behaving well inside and bad outside. Each company or country that sell surveillance technologies to non-democratic regimes is complicit in crimes against humanity. Its contribution to the violation of human rights can no longer be tolerated. All over the world companies must respect human rights, including those in the technology field.

The market of surveillance technologies is growing, it is therefore necessary to update the rules for the export of these powerful tools of electronic surveillance. Italian companies that sell surveillance technologies should be subject to the same laws of those companies exporting weapons, namely the prohibition on sale to countries in conflict, which violate human rights or so-called Heavily Indebted Poor Countries. The internet is a great opportunity of our century, has provided new opportunities to the world. It is normal for some people and companies to earn money using the internet, but it is intolerable that this happens at the expense of other human lives.

Flaviano Tarducci 20/02/2014

Published in Segnali di fumo – magazine for Human Rights www.sdfamnesty.org

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