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  • View on Private Sector: Spying tech and human rights

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Speed read

  • The human rights impact of surveillance tech sales should be monitored

  • International law does not prevent firms from selling to repressive regimes

  • Support is growing for a binding treaty on business and human rights

Last week, SciDev.Net published a story on ‘flying cars’ — lightweight vehicles with parachutes, touted as providing the transport functionality of helicopters at a fraction of the cost. The co-founder of Vaylon, the French tech company behind the Pégase car, said he envisages three main uses: military, humanitarian and leisure.
 
In theory, Vaylon could profit from both military and humanitarian clients, which struck me as an issue demanding interrogation.

Cynthia Wong is senior researcher on the internet and human rights at campaigning charity Human Rights Watch (HRW). She tells me that flying cars are just one type of new technology potentially raising ethical questions due to their dual-use capacity. Another is the growing field of surveillance technology.
 
Wong says that accountability mechanisms — both international law and how firms review sales — need to be amplified to ensure commercial technology is less likely to be used to contravene human rights.
 
When selling surveillance technology to governments, companies must focus on “who the actual customer is, what their human rights record is like and what the foreseeable consequences of selling this particular technology are”, she says.
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With surveillance equipment, accountability problems are clear cut. Wong highlights Gamma International and Hacking Team, two European technology companies that have sold “what are essentially hacking tools” to the Ethiopian government. [1]

HRW’s research found that the Ethiopian government has used these tools to “target journalists and political opposition members, rather than necessarily for legitimate law enforcement investigations”, Wong tells me. [2]

One barrier to ensuring such companies perform due diligence prior to signing sales contracts is the lack of international regulation on this kind of new technology, Wong says. “The law hasn’t really caught up, and so, legally, there’s nothing really to prevent companies selling to the most abusive governments around the world if they wanted to.”

And even if companies say they have a human rights policy, there’s little transparency around how robust and effective it is in practice, she adds.

When it comes to “double-edged sword” ICTs such as mobile network equipment — that could also be used to spy on civil society and journalists — an additional set of sales impact-related problems emerge, Wong says. The development of stronger ICT infrastructure and access is clearly important, and you don’t want to accidentally prevent mobile phone access by imposing the ‘blunt tool’ of export controls on sales to certain regimes, she adds.

Again, she adds, companies selling ICTs should implement more robust review processes to assess customers and the potential consequences of any sale.

Wong says the UN guiding principles on business and human rights can help companies monitor the human rights impact of a potential sale. [3] But “we think that principles alone are not enough”, she adds. And a company’s decision to follow the principles — and a nation’s choice to sign up to a widening of the Wassenaar Arrangement, covering dual-use technologies — remains voluntary, she says.

But amid growing international recognition that guiding principles not backed up by regulation or third party monitoring won’t be enough, support is growing for a more binding treaty on business and human rights, Wong says. For example, in June, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution “calling for a new treaty specifically focused on multinationals”. [4]

Imogen Mathers is writer/producer at SciDev.Net. You can follow her at @ImogenMathers 


References

[1] Ethiopia: Telecom surveillance chills rights (Human Rights Watch, 25 March 2014)
[2] ‘They know everything we do’: Telecom and internet surveillance in Ethiopia (Human Rights Watch, March 2014)
[3] UN guiding principles on business and human rights (Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2011)
[4] Binding treaty (Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, accessed 5 August 2014)
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