The influential human rights activists – Reporters Without Borders have released an article naming five companies deemed to be ’digital mercenaries’. The businesses involved are deemed to be selling their products to countries and regimes who use them to further erode human rights. the five businesses involved are all technology companies operating in the private sector mainly – Gamma, Trovicor, Hacking Team, Amesys and Blue Coat.
The organisation stated that –
“All these companies sell products that are liable to be used by governments to violate human rights and freedom of information.”
The products include things like surveillance systems (hardware and software), filtering devices and other associated products. Selling advanced surveillance software to regimes like Syria, Egypt, Bahrain and Iran for example could be for only one real purpose. These authoritarian regimes are dependent on technology firms and their products in order to spy and monitor dissidents and human rights activists. In a digital context it’s not so very different from selling them arms. People’s lives are certainly put at risk by the surveillance products.
There is certainly a lack of legislation and directives against where technology like this could be sold to. Of course some regimes have specific trade embargos against them, but often digital products and technology are not specified. It is also much harder to police the sale of such items especially when often the trade is completely digital. Remember some of these countries it is difficult to even keep in touch with the outside world, like watch the BBC or CNN.
Countries who abuse fundamental rights of free speech and heavily monitor internet access should not be sold technology which can be used in this sort of behaviour. Europe seems to be taking some lead in the with the Union banning the export of surveillance technology to Syria in the last few weeks. Internet censorship is still remarkably common throughout the world and many countries imposing very strict filters on their web access. Last month Iceland announced it intended to block the majority of pornography sites being access from the country – read about it here.
Only one of the companies named has so far replied, with Blue Coat making a statement. They have claimed that it respects and supports freedom of expression and ensures it’s products are only sold with respect to an individual country’s laws.