Commission urged not to backtrack on EU spyware rules

A man is reflected in the glass of a surveillance camera in the German Spy Museum in Berlin, Germany, 01 March 2018. [EPA-EFE/FELIPE TRUEBA]

The European Commission has been urged not to soften its stance on EU rules that would outlaw the export of cyber surveillance tools to despotic regimes worldwide, amid ongoing negotiations between the European Council and Parliament on the new measures.

A coalition of EU human rights organisations have penned a letter to European Commissioner for Trade Phil Hogan, imploring him not to backtrack on the Commission’s original position on the regulation on dual-use goods, which aims to clamp down on exports that can be used in the surveillance of citizens in countries with less than democratic regimes.

The call has been signed off by a series of prominent groups in the human rights space, including Access Now, Amnesty International, Brot für die Welt, Committee to Protect Journalists, International Federation For Human rights (FIDH), Human Rights Watch, Privacy International, and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The move comes after the Commission filed a series of compromise amendments in a recast of a regulation on dual-use goods, in order to try and find common ground between the Parliament and the Council, as the two parties attempt to find common ground on the rules.

“The Commission should not need a reminder of the outrage over the role of EU-made spyware in targeting journalists, activists and dissidents abroad,” said Lucie Krahulcova, Policy Analyst at Access Now. “Almost a decade after the Arab Spring brought this issue forward, the EU remains derelict in its duty to protect human rights abroad.”

The letter criticises the lack of ‘legal clarity’ in key terminology in the recast and also notes the importance of the EU recognising human rights violations that occur ‘outside situations of armed conflict or recognised situations of internal repression.’

It adds that the Commission should aim for the same standards in human rights outside of the bloc, as those that have been protected in the EU.

“Given the human rights risks associated with the use of digital surveillance technology, the export control regime should oblige exporting companies to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for risks of how their activities impact human rights as an integral part of business decision-making and risk management,” the letter notes.

Moreover, ‘due diligence’ requirements on surveillance equipment manufacturers to analyse and prevent potential impacts on human rights should also be considered, as should a ‘catch all’ mechanism for updating a list of banned products for export. Member states should also publicly disclose the reasons for which they have approved or denied export licenses for surveillance goods, the letter states.

“Surveillance technologies have a chilling impact on freedom of expression and they rob individuals of their privacy. Yet this industry exists with little transparency and no accountability. Ambitious statements about the protection of human rights are worthless when our democratic institutions roll over at the behest of the EU’s spyware industry,” Krahulcova added in a statement.

[Edited by Sam Morgan]

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