This piece originally appeared on the Independent Blogs
Wide-eyed internet visionaries told us technology would free its users from the iron grip of states, with the internet blind to borders and not respecting the dictats of bureaucrats. Instead technology is making dystopia not just possible, but cheap. Unthinkingly we’re sending our most private data across the internet thinking it a private space. Exploiting this weakness, Western technology companies have spotted a market for surveillance equipment that allows governments to hoover up data — and use it to spy on their citizens. Much of this technology has been exported to authoritarian states, but as we are discovering, if you allow British firms to flout human rights abroad, the rot begins to set in at home.
Gamma Group is run from a non-descript warehouse unit in a commercial park on the edge of Andover. This blandness is a deceit. Gamma sell a product called FinFisher, a piece of software that infects a computer and takes full control of it, allowing Skype calls to be intercepted and every keystroke the user types to be sent across the internet to another computer. The software is so sophisticated human rights groups initially couldn’t even prove it existed. Now, the University of Toronto Munk School has published research said to show that Bahraini activists have been targeted using FinFisher.
After opening emails with titles like “Torture reports on Nabeel Rajab” (a leading human rights activist now imprisoned) their computers were reportedly infected and their personal data sent to an undisclosed third party. The government of Bahrain denies it was behind the apparent deliberate sabotage. However, opposition activists are now panicked fearing their security has been breached. In response, Gamma Group reportedly said in a 23 July email that it can’t comment on any individual customers and that Gamma complies with the export regulations of the UK, US and Germany. It added that FinFisher is a tool for monitoring criminals and to reduce the risk of abuse of its products the company only sells the product to governments.
Meanwhile in Sweden telecoms giant Teliasonera has, according to a television documentary, sold surveillance equipment to almost the entire roll call of degenerate post-Soviet regimes: Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Belarus. In response to the documentary, a spokeswoman for Teliasonera said that “police tap into information from telecom networks to fight crime” and “the rules for how far their authority goes are different from country to country.” When pressed about complicity in human rights violations, she reportedly declined to comment on why security agencies were being given access to telecom buildings in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.
One Teliasonera source told news show Uppdrag Granskning: “The Arab Spring prompted the regimes to tighten their surveillance … There’s no limit to how much wiretapping is done, none at all.” Teliasonera’s equipment gives security services the capacity to monitor everything in real time — from the location of mobile phone users, their calls and SMS messages, to their emails and Facebook messages.
As Irina Bogdanova told Index on Censorship, she believes that surveillance equipment was used to locate her brother, former political prisoner Andrei Sannikov, using the signal from his mobile phone. Sannikov, a presidential candidate in 2010’s rigged elections, was stopped whilst hidden in the back of a vehicle travelling across Minsk. During his trial recordings of his private phone calls were played to the court. In a rigged legal system, the KGB didn’t need to do this, but it was a clear signal to other opposition figures that the state is watching their every move.
I can vouch for the effectiveness of surveillance in distilling fear. I flew into Belarus the day Oleg Bebenin, a human rights activist, was found dead in suspicious circumstances. After making a series of calls to London to tell colleagues I thought Oleg had been murdered, my mobile was cut off whilst I was stood alone in the streets of Minsk. My contacts in Belarus also had their mobile phones disconnected.
The British government has the powers under the Export Control Act 2002 to stop the export of any equipment that can be used to breach human rights, but with many surveillance products it has seemingly chosen not to do so. The situation is so grave that Privacy International is preparing to take the government to court to force it to take action. Yet, it isn’t just the use of this technology abroad which is of concern. The debate is moving much closer to home.
In Britain, the government is proposing legislation (the Communications Data Bill) that will grant the Home Secretary the power to blanket retain data on every citizen for an undefined purpose. It won’t require judicial approval — but potentially every text message, every Facebook message, every phone call, every email from everyone in Britain would be stored on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. If the Bill passes, companies will have to collect data they don’t currently collect and the Home Secretary will be able to ask manufacturers of communications equipment to install hardware such as ‘black boxes’ on their products to make spying easier. This proposed scale of state surveillance will add the UK to the ranks of countries such as Kazakhstan, China and Iran. This total population monitoring would break the fundamental principle that a judge and court order is required before the state invades the privacy of its citizens by holding their personal data.
Five years ago the mobile phone you carried in your pocket could pin-point you in an urban area with a margin of error of approximately 50 metres; on the latest phones it’s around 2.5 metres. Yet, we still haven’t woken up to the possibility of technology enabling states to monitor individuals on a scale unimaginable to even the wildest of science fiction writers just a generation ago. This surveillance is being used right now in authoritarian regimes to silence opposition, as the market for this technology grows with little interference from Western governments, it will become cheaper. Once it becomes almost priceless for Western governments to monitor all our data, the arguments for allowing private communication could become drowned out by the desire for public order and safety. Then the chill on free speech will be complete.
Mike Harris is head of advocacy at Index. He tweets at @cllr_mikeharris