Dictatorships Go High Tech—With Our Help

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written by
Daniel Calingaert
Executive Vice President

When news broke last month that Swedish telecommunications company TeliaSonera had collaborated with Eurasian dictatorships, it should have come as no surprise. The firm reportedly gave the security services of Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Uzbekistan complete access to their countries' telecom systems, thereby facilitating intercepts of telephone calls and text messages. This collaboration, sadly, fits a pattern.

Nearly three years ago, Nokia Siemens was reported to have sold a sophisticated internet monitoring system to Iran. Since then, news of many other technology sales to repressive regimes has emerged. Most of the autocratic states in the Middle East -- those rated Not Free in Freedom House's Freedom in the World report -- have received U.S. or European technology to censor internet content or monitor online communications.

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When repressive regimes, which restrict free expression and torture their critics, acquire internet censorship or surveillance capabilities, they are very likely to use them to commit human rights abuses. The security services of Bahrain, Iran, and Qaddafi's Libya are known to have employed Western surveillance technology to target dissidents.

Policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have put forward proposals to curb exports of such technology to nondemocratic countries. These include the Global Online Freedom Act, currently before the U.S. House of Representatives; calls for export controls by Dutch foreign minister Uri Rosenthal and Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt; and a European Parliament resolution to curtail transfers of technology for monitoring mobile phones, text messages, or internet use.

However, the U.S. and European governments have in fact taken few if any tangible steps to stem the flow of sophisticated technology for controlling the internet and mobile communications to repressive regimes. There are currently no effective measures in place to prevent a company like TeliaSonera or the dozen others that came before it from supplying dictators with the technological means to violate fundamental rights.

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