French investigating judges yesterday charged four Amesys executives with complicity in torture in Libya and Egypt after a lengthy legal battle. It is the first time that sellers of spy technology have been held directly responsible. Previously, fines were handed out at most if technology was sold to autocratic regimes despite sanctions.
Espionage technology is the suppression weapon of our time. Critical journalists are monitored using the latest technological gadgets, dissidents are followed and information is tapped from e-mails and text messages. Facial recognition gives authoritarian states extra ammunition.
Not only Chinese, but also Western companies play a role in the market of tech products that penetrate the telephones and computers of a target unseen. For example, already in 2008 the European Nokia-Siemens sold monitoring systems to Iran. This allowed those in power to closely monitor internet traffic in their country.
Throughout the Arab world, the internet and mobile phones became important links in the expression of protests, organizing demonstrations and recording human rights violations. Most young people who took part in peaceful demonstrations would not have known that the French Amesys was the main supplier of spy technology to the Gaddafi regime in Libya at the time. The company also sold items to Egypt. And since then, this multi-billion dollar industry has only grown worldwide.
Time and again it shows how important technology is for dictators. After journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in 2018, it turned out that all his movements had been tracked in the months before — courtesy of Israel’s NSO Group. That company functions effectively as a private intelligence agency. For example, it injected targets’ phones with espionage software via WhatsApp.
That even Amazon boss Jeff Bezos was hacked, via a file sent via WhatsApp from the Saudi crown prince, should have been a wake-up call. The supplier of this technology? Investigations showed that to be NSO Group and Hacking Team, an Italian company.
It doesn’t seem to matter that spy companies are actively undermining the foreign policy of democratic countries. Condemning an authoritarian state for curtailing press freedom is of course hollow if at the same time it has just struck a nice deal with a European or Israeli company to refine the same oppression.
For a long time, espionage companies were allowed to go about their business unhindered. The former United Nations special envoy, David Kaye, called in 2018 to temporarily suspend the sale of espionage assets because of the violation of human rights that you are facilitating. However, this has not yet led to worldwide agreements on better supervision. It was only this month that European legislation was slightly modernized with the aim of more control over trade in this type of technology.
Hopefully, the new French lawsuit will help stop the virtually uninhibited sale of spy systems. If democratic countries lack the intrinsic motivation to do so, it may help them to know that Chinese or Middle Eastern companies are now leaders in suppression software.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the telephones and computers of journalists and board chairmen are also hacked in the Netherlands by foreign regimes or criminals. As long as democratic countries do not act together against espionage technology, they themselves contribute to such human rights violations.
Marietje Schaake, former MEP, works for Stanford University, where she is involved in artificial intelligence. She writes a biweekly column about living and working in Silicon Valley.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of June 25, 2021