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    Washington Post: Trade in surveillance technology raises worries

    A couple of weeks ago, MIT Technology Review reported on 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.

    Now, the Washington Post reports that WikiLeaks documents show that surveillance technology from companies in Western nations, including the United States, is assisting governments in watching, tracking and repressing their citizens:

    The Commerce Department regulates exports of surveillance technology, but its ability to restrict the trade is limited. Intermediaries sometimes redirect sales to foreign governments, even those subjected to economic sanctions, once products leave the United States. The State Department, which has spent $70 million in recent years to promote Internet freedom abroad, has expressed rising alarm over such transactions but has no enforcement authority.

    U.S. law generally requires law enforcement agencies to obtain court orders when intercepting domestic Internet or phone communications. But such restrictions do not follow products when they are sold overseas.

    Industry officials say their products are designed for legitimate purposes, such as tracking terrorists, investigating crimes and allowing employers to block pornographic and other restricted Web sites at their offices. […]

    But the surveillance products themselves make no distinction between bad guys and good guys, only users and targets. Several years of industry sales brochures provided to The Washington Post by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, and released publicly Thursday, reveal that many companies are selling sophisticated tools capable of going far beyond conventional investigative techniques. […]

    About 15 of the vendors for the [surveillance technology] conference in Bethesda were based in the United States, said Lucas. Others were from Germany, Italy, Israel, South Africa and Britain; many of these also have U.S. offices targeting the market for law enforcement agencies and other government buyers. […]

    Privacy experts say the legal framework governing the industry has not kept up with its growth, and products sold for legitimate purposes, such as blocking access to certain Web sites or investigating sexual predators, can easily be adapted for broader surveillance purposes. […]

    Another German company, Elaman, advertises in its government security brochure the capacity to “identify an individual’s location, their associates and members of a group, such as political opponents.” […]

    The WikiLeaks documents, which the group also provided to several European news organizations and one in India, do not reveal the names of buyers. But when “Arab Spring” revolutionaries took control of state security agencies in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, they found that Western surveillance technology had been used to monitor political activists.

    “We are seeing a growing number of repressive regimes get hold of the latest, greatest Western technologies and use them to spy on their own citizens for the purpose of quashing peaceful political dissent or even information that would allow citizens to know what is happening in their communities,” said Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for human rights, in a speech last month in California. “We are monitoring this issue very closely.”

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