Earlier this week, French authorities accused four former leaders of the surveillance company Nexa Technologies, formerly called Amesys, for complicity in torture and war crimes. Between 2007 and 2014, the company allegedly provided surveillance tools to authoritarian regimes in Libya and Egypt.
A coalition including the International Federation for Human Rights, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, and other human rights groups claim that the repressive governments of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al- Sisi used the tools to identify dissidents and activists, read their private emails and messages, and, in some cases, kidnap, torture or kill them.
Nexa executives are accused of selling internet surveillance equipment which intercepted emails, texts, and Facebook messages from journalists and dissidents. Executives allegedly sold technology to the Libyan government of Gadhafi in 2007 and Egypt in 2014. U accused individuals include former Amesys boss Philippe Vannier, former president Stéphane Salies, and two current Nexa executives: President Olivier Bohbot and CEO Renaud Roques. Efforts to reach men through Nexa have been unsuccessful.
The investigating judges of the crimes against humanity and the war crimes of the Judicial Court of Paris will reviews and tests to determine whether the four executives will be tried in criminal court.
Such accusations are extremely rare. National security experts say that international markets for the export of surveillance tools are largely unregulated. Manufacturers of such equipment often push themselves against restrictions, even those intended to safeguard them from abuse. A Effort 2017 by European journalists it was estimated that there were more than 230 surveillance companies based in the EU.
“In general, there is little that authorities are obliged to do to curb this toxic market,” says Marietje Schaake, director of international policy at Stanford University’s Cyber Center and former member of the European Parliament. While in parliament, Schaake argued new restrictions on exports of cyber surveillance technology from Europe to countries with a history of human rights violations.
Introduced by EU legislators in 2016 and past last year, these new rules require companies to obtain licenses to export certain “dual-use” technologies, such as software capable of surveillance, hacking, or data extraction. Governments reviewing license applications should assess the likelihood that the tools will be used to violate human rights.
The accusation of French leaders stems from previous sales of new EU regulations, but Schaake hopes to send a message that it is possible to enforce the controls of cyber surveillance equipment. She says it’s much easier to regulate sales than products are in other countries. Often, it is the western countries that are most resistant to this idea.
“Companies frame these tools as used to fight terrorism,” says Schaake. “Those who are really responsible for torture or kidnapping are the states that do it, but companies provide crucial tools to activate it.”
Concerns about sales in Libya and Egypt date back to the “Arab Spring” of 2011, when journalists and privacy groups alarms raised that American and European companies furnished surveillance tools to oppressive regimes.
Both in the US and in the EU, export controls have evolved into a partial fashion, with security companies saying overbroad restrictions may penalize research, the fight against terrorism, or other legitimate uses of software and human rights groups emphasizing its potential in the promotion of authoritarianism.
Last October the United States has updated its rules control the export of potentially dangerous software. The Commerce Department says we will now want human rights considerations taken into account when approve or deny licenses for companies to make international sales. As in the EU, change is coming after several failed offers for a review. But what that means, practically, is still in the air.
“You have to think about this in terms of the growing attention that human rights are receiving both in European circles and in the United States and the greater attention that is being placed on human rights abuses in China and elsewhere. , ”says Garrett Hinck, a national security researcher at Columbia University.