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Chapter by Melissa Ngo

"The Myth of Security Under Camera Surveillance"


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    President Obama Issues Executive Order on Use of Technology for Human Rights Abuses

    UPDATED TO ADD, from the White House, the Executive Order Blocking the Property and Suspending Entry into the United States of Certain Persons with Respect to Grave Human Rights Abuses by the Governments of Iran and Syria via Information Technology, a Fact Sheet, and a letter to House Speaker John A. Boehner on the executive order.

    In a speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum today, President Obama announced an executive order that concerns the use by foreign nationals of the use of technology for human rights abuses. Several months ago, there were reports that WikiLeaks documents showed that surveillance technology from companies in Western nations, including the United States, is assisting governments in watching, tracking and repressing their citizens. And there have been reports that Internet-filtering and surveillance technology being used by countries to censor their citizens in Syria and Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Countries such as China have been finding ways to block their citizens from Web sites banned by the government. There have been stories about the “Great Firewall of China” and how its citizens seek to circumvent the Internet restrictions.

    A couple of years ago, there was much discussion when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a speech calling for global Internet freedom, linking it with other basic freedoms (worship, assembly, expression), and noting: “In the last year, we’ve seen a spike in threats to the free flow of information. China, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan have stepped up their censorship of the internet.”

    The Washington Post reports on Obama’s speech:

    President Obama issued an executive order Monday that will allow U.S. officials for the first time to impose sanctions against foreign nationals found to have used new technologies, from cellphone tracking to Internet monitoring, to help carry out grave human rights abuses.

    Social media and cellphone technology have been widely credited with helping democracy advocates organize against autocratic governments and better expose rights violations, most notably over the past year and a half in the Middle East and North Africa.

    But authoritarian governments, particularly in Syria and Iran, have shown that their security services can also harness technology to help crack down on dissent — by conducting surveillance, blocking access to the Internet or tracking the movements of opposition figures. [...]

    Although the [executive] order is designed to target companies and individuals assisting the governments of Iran and Syria, they said, future executive orders could name others aiding other countries through technology in crackdowns on dissent. [...]

    To demonstrate the priority he places on genocide prevention, Obama used the address [at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum] to reveal that he has asked for the first-ever National Intelligence Estimate — the consensus view of all U.S. intelligence agencies — appraising the potential for mass killings in countries around the world and their implication for U.S. interests.

    The president also announced a set of U.S. development “challenge” grants designed to encourage technology companies to develop new ways to help residents in countries vulnerable to mass killings better detect and quickly alert others to impending dangers. And he will unveil a high-level government panel to serve as a clearinghouse for real-time intelligence, policymaking and other issues related to mass killing.

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