Parliament calls for stricter controls over surveillance tech exports

The European Parliament approved MEP Marietje Schaake's report on surveillance technology

The European Parliament approved MEP Marietje Schaake's report on surveillance technology. [European Parliament]

The European Parliament gave the green light on Tuesday (8 September) to a non-binding resolution calling for safeguards to ensure technology isn’t implicated in human rights abuse, especially when it’s exported outside of Europe for surveillance or censorship purposes. A European Commission proposal is expected next year.

Yesterday’s vote came two months after it was first scheduled. In July, Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), the author of the own initiative report, asked to have the vote postponed at short notice.

Schaake told EURACTIV at the time that she didn’t have the support to bring the report to plenary.

The surveillance report finally faced the first plenary session after the summer break and was approved with 371 votes in favour, 293 against and 43 abstentions yesterday afternoon in Strasbourg.

MEPs approved the entire text, but Schaake said her report is still a lightening rod for criticism. A number of lawmakers, especially from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and Conservatives and Reformist (ECR) groups in Parliament, disagree with her position on Europe’s complicity in surveillance.

“Unfortunately there are still quite a few people who see security and human rights as zero-sum,” Schaake told EURACTIV.

“The conservative side of the European Parliament did not want to condemn the role EU-based companies play, and also did not support the text that emphasized the need for strong encryption in the interest of securing data and the people communicating,” the lawmaker said.

Checks on software

The report spells out recommendations to make sure technology isn’t used in or outside Europe to abuse human rights. Institutions should issue checks on exports of software that can be used for surveillance or to censor or block internet activity, the report recommends.

Schaake’s report calls for safeguards to encryption technology, which have come under fire from British Prime Minister David Cameron, and other officials, who call privacy techniques that leave no backdoor for law enforcement a threat to security.

>>Read: Ansip denies ‘rumours’ of encryption backdoors in EU’s digital plan

The report also says EU member states’ cooperation with US surveillance agencies to spy on citizens “has caused serious damage to the credibility of the EU’s human rights policy and has undermined global trust in the benefits of ICTs”.

“The credibility of Europe’s foreign policy is undermined directly when an Italian company unjustly gets a license to sell to Sudan or Russia or when a French company sells digital keys to open any door, even the ones we may think are protected or locked by passwords or much stronger measures,” Schaake said during Monday’s debate in Strasbourg.

Milan-based company Hacking Team was itself the victim of hacking in July, when invoices and internal emails were leaked, showing the firm’s sales of software that can be used for surveillance to countries such as Sudan, Russia and Turkey.

Some EU member states also purchased software from Hacking Team, leading to the resignation of Maltese intelligence agency chief Andreas Pentaras in July.

Dual use technology

Earlier this summer, Schaake told EURACTIV that there should be EU-wide rules on export licences.

The European Commission is reviewing the dual use regulation this year, which sets out rules for the export of products that can potentially be used for military purposes.

German Minister of Economics Sigmar Gabriel signed off on a national law in July instituting stricter export controls for surveillance technology. Gabriel has been pushing for EU-wide laws to limit the export on dual use technology.

>>Read: Germany leaves Brussels behind on surveillance tech export controls

“In addition to country-specific sanctions, the European Union is reviewing its export controls to prevent exports of sensitive technologies that could be misused in violation of human rights,” Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said during Monday’s debate.

Timmermans was in Strasbourg for a Commissioners’ college meeting on the sidelines of the plenary session.

Commission proposal due next year

“We’ve introduced in December 2014 new controls on exports of intrusion software and internet monitoring technologies. We are further exploring options to extend export controls to rapidly evolving cybersurveillance technologies that might be used for internet monitoring and/or telecommunications surveillance in violation of human rights,” he added.

Schaake said many of the Commission’s measures to control the export of surveillance technology needed prodding from the Parliament.

“There is still a huge amount of work that needs to be done before the EU has the relevant policies in place to deal with both the opportunities and the risks that are caused by the availability of new technologies,” she said.

“A proposal for new legislation is now finally expected at the start of 2016, which is welcome, but still long overdue. It will always prove difficult to make sure that the legislative process keeps up with technological developments, especially when it regards the internet, but on this issue it is safe to say that we are seriously lagging behind.”

The European Commission is reviewing the dual use regulation, which lays down the legislative framework for the export of products that can be used as weapons. A vote on a report by Dutch Liberal MEP Marietje Schaake on export controls for surveillance technology was postponed from July until September 2015.

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