Commission plans export controls for surveillance technology

Industry groups have amped up their efforts to lobby against the draft ePrivacy legislation. [ Flickr]

EXCLUSIVE / Technology companies may face stricter licensing requirements to export products that could be used to violate human rights, as part of a change to EU rules.

The European Commission is set to propose controversial measures in September that may force firms to go through lengthy approval processes when they export technologies including location tracking devices, biometrics and surveillance equipment.

A draft proposal, obtained by, would require export controls for cyber-surveillance technologies under a revised EU law that covers so-called dual-use goods that can either be used as weapons or for civil purposes.

Technology firms are worried the change will make it harder to export a broad range of common products like smartphones because they can track users’ locations.

“You can’t make suspects out of the whole branch for items that are harmless. It will overwhelm the licensing authorities,” one industry source said.

The draft proposal would also require companies to secure special approval to export potentially harmful items if they can be used to abuse human rights, for “internal repression in the country of final destination” or a terrorist act. Under current EU law, dual-use products require special export licences only if they can be used to create weapons of mass destruction or violate a trade embargo.

The EU executive came under pressure to change its export control rules after several governments, including Egypt and Morocco, used surveillance technologies to crack down on Arab Spring protesters.

“The amount of discussion that’s been going on over the last few years meant that it was always likely there would be language on a potential catch-all control in the field of ICT surveillance,” said Mark Bromley, director of the dual-use and arms control programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Bromley said companies need to see definitions of the restricted technologies to know what products to license, as well as guidelines on when goods can be used to abuse human rights. Those details are not in the draft bill.

Phone trackers and internet surveillance technologies are also among the items that will be subject to special approval for export under the new regulation.

Last year, leaked invoices and emails from Milan-based software company Hacking Team revealed that the firm had sold spyware to a number of governments, including the Sudanese, Turkish and Saudi Arabian. The Italian government revoked the company’s licence to export outside the EU this spring.

Germany leaves Brussels behind on surveillance tech export controls

Germany’s ministry of economics has agreed on a new law that will impose controls on the export of surveillance technologies but EU reform on export controls is still stalled.

Under the changes to EU export rules, member states will have to share information about the exports they approve, but won’t be required to make that data public.

Researchers say some EU countries are known to approve requests more leniently, attracting companies to seek licences there.

“The main thing that should be done is to have transparency measures so member states have to make publicly available the data from their licensing mechanism,” said Edin Omanovic, a researcher on export controls at London-based NGO Privacy International.

Germany introduced its own law last summer requiring licences to export phone monitoring and data retention technologies. Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel has pushed for EU-wide rules to control where European firms sell surveillance products.

The Commission’s draft proposal casts an even broader net, requiring licences for more types of technologies.

“There’s some concern that they’re going generally above and beyond other countries but that shouldn’t be something that holds Europe back,” Omanovic said.

“The recognition by the Commission that surveillance technologies require safeguards in their export is hugely important,” he added.

The European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution last year calling for export controls on surveillance technologies.

Former EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes announced plans in 2011 to protect people outside the EU from surveillance by distributing software to circumvent spyware and securely access the internet.

EURACTIV reported earlier this year that the executive quietly abandoned those plans after funding only €3 million in grants to support online human rights.

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The European Commission is currently reviewing the dual-use regulation, the legislative framework for the export of products that can be used as weapons. The executive is expected to proposes changes to the law in September 2016. A vote on a report by Dutch ALDE MEP Marietje Schaake (Democraten 66) on export controls for surveillance technology was approved in September 2015.

  • September 2016: European Commission will propose changes to the dual-use regulation

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