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5th Dec 2022

MEPs target exports of cyber surveillance tech

  • A French company is under investigation for selling surveillance technology to the regime in Egypt (Photo: Alisdare Hickson)

The European Parliament is set to vote on a bill on Wednesday (17 January) that aims to crack down on cyber surveillance technology sold to countries with dubious human rights records.

The move follows widespread condemnation of autocratic regimes for lynching activists in the lead up to and during the 'Arab Spring'. Some of those regimes relied on cyber surveillance technology to suppress dissidents.

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German companies are said to be among Europe's biggest exporters, with clients in places like Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Klaus Buchner, a German MEP from the Ecological Democratic Party, is leading the file on behalf of the European Parliament.

"Iran is an example [of using] German technology, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco and some others," he told reporters last week in Brussels.

Last December, a Paris prosecutor opened a judicial investigation into French firm Nexa Technologies after it landed a surveillance contract with the authoritarian Egyptian regime of Abdel Fattah Al Sissi.

Amnesty International says BAE Systems, the UK's largest arms manufacturer, had also last year exported controlled internet surveillance systems to Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Oman, Morocco, and Algeria.

The latest bill on the parliament's table is a recasting of a 2011 European dual-use regulation whereby technologies can be used for both civil and military applications.

The European Commission had proposed to amend the regulation, which covers an annual €80 billion market, with stronger rules for the protection of human rights.

MEPs in the International Trade Committee (INTA) had agreed in November to include a human rights catch-all clause on cyber surveillance in the reforms. Such technology can be used to intercept mobile phones, circumvent passwords and remotely hack into computers.

"Until now, authorities had no obligation to reject requests for licenses in which human rights were not guaranteed," Anne-Marie Mineur, a Dutch MEP from the left-wing GUE group, told reporters in Strasbourg on Tuesday (16 January).

She said only 14 out of the 371 applications for export of European cyber surveillance technologies had been recently denied.

"More than half of these exports were meant for countries that have a very poor track record in terms of freedom of speech and other human rights," she said.

The reform includes due diligence rules for the broker or the exporter who will be obliged to inform member state authorities should the potential of abuse arise. The rule, however, is not enforced.

It also proposes penalties or fines will be the same for all countries found to violate the regulation. Those amounts have yet to be determined. Member states will also have to make the licensing data regarding approved and denied exports available for public scrutiny.

The latest commission reform was widely endorsed by committee MEPs from almost all the political groups and is likely to receive the backing of Wednesday's European plenary.

Should the plenary agree to the proposal then the Council, representing member states, will have to come up with their position for tripartite negotiations can start.

MEPs are hoping to launch talks under the Austrian EU presidency, during the second half of this year, and have the bill agreed before 2019.

"These new rules should eventually stop EU-produced surveillance equipment from being exported to countries where there is a high risk it would be used to abuse journalists, activists and others who work to defend rights," said Nele Meyer, senior executive officer at Amnesty International.

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