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Surveillance tech companies should not sell to despots, EU says

And U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warns surveillance companies that their products could be used to breach human rights

By Jennifer Baker
December 9, 2011 08:07 AM ET

IDG News Service - Surveillance technology companies have a moral obligation not to sell to repressive regimes, said Europe's Digital Agenda Commissioner on Friday. Her views were echoed by the U.S. secretary of state who said that companies cannot pretend they don't know what their technology is used for in countries like Syria and Iran.

"Every actor, public and private, must take up their responsibilities. Companies should be transparent about the technology they are selling in certain countries. If technology is used by certain repressive governments to identify innocent citizens and put their life or freedom in danger, we ought to know," said European Commissioner Neelie Kroes, speaking at the iFreedom conference on Internet freedom in The Hague, Netherlands.

Kroes is concerned that despotic governments can use information and communication technologies as tools of surveillance and repression and as means to track and spy on those defending human rights.

"In such areas, we can react with legal measures such as sanctions, as we have done in the case of Syria. But, for me, this is not just a legal issue, it is a moral issue. I think it is high time for the industry to decide where they stand, and what they are going to do. If not as a moral issue, then as an issue of corporate reputation: being known for selling despots the tools of their repression is, to say the least, bad PR," she said, according to a transcript of her speech.

However in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, Tatiana Lucas, world program director for think-tank Intelligence Support Systems, said this issue "makes U.S. manufacturers gun-shy about developing, and eventually exporting, anything that can remotely be used to support government surveillance."

"We expect that most countries outside the U.S. and Western Europe will begin to place intercept mandates on social networks, especially following the Arab Spring. This would give U.S. companies an opportunity to develop such tools and thus create jobs," Lucas said. "Additionally, in some countries U.S. companies are already refusing to provide intercept support and are banned from doing business. But Chinese equivalents, with lawful-intercept features, crop up in their absence. Like it or not, many countries will adopt the Chinese model, leaving U.S. companies and job growth behind."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, also speaking at the conference in The Hague, took issue with this point of view. "When companies sell surveillance equipment to the security agency of Syria or Iran, there can be no doubt it will be used to violate rights," she said, according to a transcript of her speech.

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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