EU Curbs Export of Surveillance Systems to Repressive Regimes

The European Union will curb the export of telephone- and data-interception technology to nations that use the tools to violate human rights, following reports that Western surveillance gear was used to track dissidents in Middle East crackdowns.

The European Parliament voted today in Strasbourg, France, to bar overseas sales of systems that monitor phone calls and text messages, or provide targeted Internet surveillance, if they are used to violate democratic principles, human rights or freedom of speech.

The legislation leaves enforcement to each of the EU’s 27 member nations. It also lets companies declare exports of the software and hardware 30 days after the gear has left the EU, rather than require prior approval from national authorities, reflecting a compromise reached to get the measure passed.

“The EU should absolutely make no business out of dealing with regimes that do things to repress people,” Joerg Leichtfried, an Austrian member of the EU assembly who sponsored the legislation, said in an interview.

European technology was used to suppress activists during the Arab Spring uprisings this year, said Leichtfried, a member of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. “Software was used to tap phone conversations, to check their Internet activity and to trace their location,” he said.

EU national governments have already signaled their support for the legislation, making their final approval a formality, Leichtfried said.

Probe Request

Bloomberg News reported in August that a monitoring system sold and maintained by European companies had generated text-message transcripts used in the interrogation of a human-rights activist tortured in Bahrain.

The Bloomberg report led a group of six EU legislators to request a probe by the European Commission, the EU’s executive body in Brussels, to determine whether any European security and communications companies contributed to rights violations. That request is pending.

Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the Parliament who sponsored the probe request, said today’s vote is a first step that lacks independent verification by the EU.

“It depends on the goodwill of companies to be transparent, and the goodwill of countries to monitor them,” she said. “But the good news is it’s on the agenda.”

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