Surveillance Technology Trade Raises Concerns

Thursday, 01 Dec 2011 11:24 AM

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Eavesdropping technology produced in the United States and other Western nations is ending up in repressive countries such as Syria, Iran, and China. The federal government is doing little to restrict the trade, alarming human rights activists, The Washington Post reported.
The tracking, monitoring, and eavesdropping technology is sold around the globe with little restriction.

“You need two things for a dictatorship to survive — propaganda and secret police,” Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., told the Post. “Both of those are enabled in a huge way by the high-tech companies involved.” Smith has proposed legislation to restrict the trade.

A trade show, dubbed The Wiretappers’ Ball, drew 20 federal agencies and representatives from more than 43 countries when it was held in the Washington area in October. The public and the press were barred from the event that showcased products that could track cellphones, read emails, and take control of personal computers, the Post reported.

While the Commerce Department oversees the export of surveillance technology, it has limited power to restrict the trade, and the technology is often shuttled through intermediaries before reaching its final destination.

“People are morally outraged by the traditional arms trade, but they don’t realize that the sale of software and equipment that allows oppressive regimes to monitor the movements, communications, and Internet activity of entire populations is just as dangerous,” Privacy International’s Eric King told the Post.

However, a State Department official told the Post it may be too late to do anything about the trade.  

“We’ve lost,” the official told the Post. “If the technology people are selling at these conferences gets into the hands of bad people, all we can do is raise the costs. We can’t completely protect activists or anyone from this.”

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