Uncontrolled Global Surveillance: Updating Export Controls to the Digital Age

Policy Paper
March 24, 2014

In 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported “the annual value of the retail market for surveillance tools has increased from ‘nearly zero’ in 2001 to around $5 billion a year.” The Arab Uprising and the fallen regimes’ documents that became public in the aftermath shed light on this growing industry. Some authorities employed this technology for political control and to facilitate internal repression, the suppression of the media and civil society, and other violations of fundamental human rights. Technologies were found to have been exported to authoritarian governments, such as Assad’s Syria and Gadhafi’s Libya with companies in the United States, France, and the United Kingdom facing legal challenges subsequently. It became clear that, while surveillance technology can have legitimate uses, it can also be abused for nefarious purposes and become a powerful facilitator of oppression.

This paper focuses on export controls as one policy option to address this problem. A key finding of this paper is that existing export control regulations have become out-dated and have not kept up with new technology. This report provides an in-depth policy and technological analysis of existing export controls as they relate to surveillance technology. Given the importance of a multilateral approach for export controls to be effective overall, it focuses on the export control regimes in three countries - Germany, the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US) - and was conducted as a joint project by three organizations in these three countries.

At the same time, government regulation can have a negative impact on technology, innovation, and trade. The “Crypto Wars” of the 1990s, a multiyear struggle to loosen export controls on encryption initially on the munitions list in the US, exemplified how broad-brush and poor policy related to export controls and technology can do more harm than good. This report is therefore based on a technical analysis incorporating invaluable input from technologists to flag concerns as well as a targeted and careful policy analysis to avoid negative consequences bearing in mind the lessons learned from the Crypto Wars.

Click here to read the full paper (PDF).

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