Surveillance technologies and “apolitical” corporations

Since the book’s manuscript was finalized in August, there has been a steady stream of headlines recently about the use of Western surveillance technology by repressive regimes, adding to the cases I described in Chapter 4 and elsewhere. One of the biggest stories has been the revelation by the hacktivist group Telecomix that the Syrian government continues to use censorship and monitoring devices manufactured by the California-based company Blue Coat. Late last month the company has finally acknowledged that at least thirteen of its devices are being used by Syria.

Today, The Guardian has an amazing article titled “Governments turn to hacking techniques for surveillance of citizens.” It describes the annual Intelligence Support Systems (ISS) World Americas  conference, at which surveillance firms share tips on the latest “lawful interception” techniques used to spy on citizens. The companies showed little concern for how this technology can be and is being abused around the world. An excerpt:

Jerry Lucas, the president of the company behind ISS World, TeleStrategies, does not deny surveillance developers that attend his conference supply to repressive regimes. In fact, he is adamant that the manufacturers of surveillance technology, such as Gamma International, SS8 and Hacking Team, should be allowed to sell to whoever they want.

“The surveillance that we display in our conferences, and discuss how to use, is available to any country in the world,” he said. “Do some countries use this technology to suppress political statements? Yes, I would say that’s probably fair to say. But who are the vendors to say that the technology is not being used for good as well as for what you would consider not so good?”

Would he be comfortable in the knowledge that regimes in Zimbabwe and North Korea were purchasing this technology from western companies? “That’s just not my job to determine who’s a bad country and who’s a good country. That’s not our business, we’re not politicians … we’re a for-profit company. Our business is bringing governments together who want to buy this technology.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has proposed a two-part “know your customer” framework for surveillance equipment:

  1. Companies selling surveillance technologies to governments need to affirmatively investigate and “know your customer” before and during a sale.  We suggest something for human rights similar to what most of these companies are already required to do under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the export regulations for other purposes, and
  2. Companies need to refrain from participating in transactions where their “know your customer” investigations reveal either objective evidence or credible concerns that the technologies provided by the company will be used to facilitate human rights violations.

Click here for further details. One of the broader problems, of course, is that the market for ever-more sophisticated surveillance equipment feeds unaccountable abuses of power not only by authoritarian regimes but also by democratic governments.

As long as engineers and companies claim to have no responsibility for the political context in which their inventions and products are used, the problem is going to grow worse. This problem of “amoral” technology being used for immoral purposes has been exacerbated in the Internet age, but it has been around a lot longer. In a talk I gave last week at the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference, I played a video clip from Tom Lehrer‘s early 1960’s song about ex-Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun:

The lyrics :

Gather round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun,
A man whose allegiance
Is ruled by expedience.
Call him a Nazi, he won’t even frown.
“Ha, Nazi Schmazi,” says Wernher von Braun.

Don’t say that he’s hypocritical,
Say rather that he’s apolitical.

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.

Some have harsh words for this man of renown,
But some think our attitude
Should be one of gratitude,
Like the widows and cripples in old London town
Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun.

You too may be a big hero,
Once you’ve learned to count backwards to zero.
“In German oder English I know how to count down,
Und I’m learning Chinese,” says Wernher von Braun

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  1. [...] show how little concern companies show for how their products can be abused around the world. According to Rebecca McKinnon, the problem of “amoral technology being used for immoral purposes has [...]

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