Earlier this week, French authorities indicted four former executives of the surveillance company Nexa Technologies, formerly known as Amesys, for complicity in torture and war crimes. Between 2007 and 2014, the firm allegedly provided surveillance tools to authoritarian regimes in Libya and Egypt.
A coalition comprising the International Federation for Human Rights, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and other human rights groups say the repressive governments of the former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi used the tools to identify dissidents and activists, read their emails and private messages and, in some cases, kidnap, torture or kill them.
Nexa executives accused of selling internet monitoring equipment who intercepted emails, texts and Facebook messages from journalists and dissidents. Frames allegedly sold technology in Gaddafi’s Libyan government in 2007 and in Egypt in 2014. the persons charged include the former boss of Amesys, Philippe Vannier, the former president Stéphane Salies, and two current leaders of Nexa: the president Olivier Bohbot and the general manager Renaud Roques. Efforts to reach men via Nexa were unsuccessful.
The investigating judges of the crimes against humanity and war crimes division of the Paris tribunal de grande instance examine the evidence to determine whether the four executives will be tried in a criminal court.
Such indictments are extremely rare. National security experts say the international markets for the export of surveillance tools are largely unregulated. Manufacturers of such equipment often push back restrictions, even those intended to guard against abuse. A 2017 effort of European journalists estimated that there were more than 230 surveillance companies headquartered in the EU.
“Overall, the authorities are not required to do much to curb this toxic market,” says Marietje Schaake, director of international policy at the Cyber Policy Center at Stanford University and former member of the European Parliament . In parliament, Schaake supported new restrictions on exports of cyber-surveillance technologies from Europe to countries with a history of human rights violations.
Introduced by EU legislators in 2016 and adopted Last year, these new rules require companies to obtain licenses to export certain “dual-use” technologies, such as software capable of monitoring, hacking or extracting data. Governments reviewing license applications must assess the likelihood of the tools being used to violate human rights.
The indictment of French executives stems from sales prior to the new EU regulations, but Schaake hopes they will send a message that it is possible to enforce controls on cybersurveillance equipment. She says it’s much easier to regulate sales before the products are in other countries. Often, it is the Western countries that resist this idea the most.
“Companies see these tools as being used to fight terrorism,” Schaake explains. “Those who are really responsible for the torture or kidnappings are the states that do it, but companies are providing crucial tools to enable it. “
Concerns over sales to Libya and Egypt date back to the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011, when journalists and privacy groups triggered alarms that American and European companies monitoring equipment provided to oppressive regimes.
In both the United States and the EU, export controls have evolved in a piecemeal mode, security firms claiming overly broad restrictions can penalize research, counterterrorism or other legitimate uses of software, and human rights groups highlight their potential by encouraging authoritarianism.
Last October, the United States updated its own rules control the export of potentially dangerous software. The Ministry of Commerce says it will now take human rights considerations to take into account when approve or deny licenses for companies to make international sales. As in the EU, the change comes after several unsuccessful calls for tenders for an overhaul. But what that means, practically, is still unanswered.
“You have to think about it in terms of the growing attention that human rights are receiving in European and American circles and the increased attention that is being given to human rights violations in China and elsewhere,” Garrett said. Hinck, national security researcher. at Columbia University.