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1996 03 * New Dawn * Peddling Big Brother * Simon Davies

New Dawn No. 35 (March-April 1996)

The international arms industry is starting to invest big money in Big Brother. Hundreds of companies in developed countries are trafficking surveillance technology to hostile governments in the third world. Simon Davies reports.


The Western world gave a collective cheer when pro-democracy demonstrators occupied Beijing's Tianamen Square. China, after all, is the regime we all love to hate.

What received less coverage was the systematic witch hunt that followed. The Chinese authorities tortured and interrogated thousands of citizens in an attempt to ferret out the subversives. But even if their comrades had resisted the terrors of the secret police, the hapless students stood little chance of anonymity. Stationed throughout Tianamen Square were a number of UK manufactured surveillance cameras. These faithfully recorded the protesters. The images were then repeatedly broadcast over Chinese television with the sad result that virtually all the transgressors were identified.

Siemens Plessey, which manufactured and exported the cameras, claim they never had any idea that their equipment would be used this way. Even so, the Beijing tragedy is just one of hundreds of instances where Western surveillance technology has been used for inhumane purposes by tyrannical regimes. In most cases, it is with the full cooperation of the manufacturer.

Western surveillance technology is providing invaluable support to military and totalitarian authorities throughout the world. British computer firm ICL (International Computers Limited) provided the technological infrastructure to establish the South African automated Passbook system, upon which much of the functioning of the Apartheid regime depended. In the late 1970s Security Systems International supplied security technology to Idi Amins brutal regime in Uganda.

In the 1980s, Israeli company Tadiram developed and exported the technology for the computerised death list used by the Guatemalan police. Meanwhile, companies such as PK Electronics routinely provide the Chinese authorities with bugging equipment and telephone tapping devices.

The Washington based surveillance watchdog Privacy International has just completed an investigation into this trade. This report, Big Brother Incorporated, identifies the trade with such countries as Nigeria, China, Angola, Rwanda, Zambia and Indonesia. Almost 200 companies have been identified in the report, including 80 from Britain, making it the world leader in this field. Other countries, in order of significance, are the United States, France, Israel, the Netherlands and Germany.

Surveillance technologies can be defined as technologies which can monitor, track and assess the movements, activities and communications of individuals. These include an array of visual recording devices, bugging equipment, computer information systems and identification systems. These innovations are used by military, police and intelligence authorities as technologies of repression. Big Brother Incorporated is the first investigation ever conducted into this trade.

The surveillance trade is almost indistinguishable from the arms trade. More than seventy per cent of companies manufacturing and exporting surveillance technology also export arms, chemical weapons, or military hardware. Surveillance is a crucial element for the maintenance of any non-democratic infrastructure, and is an important activity in the pursuit of intelligence and political control. Many countries in transition to democracy also rely heavily on surveillance to satisfy the demands of police and military. The technology described in the report makes possible mass surveillance of populations. In the past, regimes relied on surveillance of targeted individuals.

The report is derived from company information, trade fair data, annual reports and media reports. It lists the companies, their directors, products and exports. In each case, source material is meticulously cited. It shows that the extent of Western support for inhumane regimes is widespread. The notorious human rights abuses in Indonesia - particularly those affecting East Timor - would not be possible without the strategic and technological support of Western companies. Amongst those companies supplying the Indonesian police and military with surveillance and targeting technology are Morpho Systems (France), De la Rue Printak (UK), EEV Night Vision (UK), ICL (UK), Marconi Radar and Control Systems (UK), Pyser (UK), Siemens Plessey Defence Systems (UK) Rockwell International Corporation (USA) and SWS Security (USA). These and other corporations supply the intelligence gathering and identification systems necessary to pursue a programme of ethnic cleansing.

This technology is exported to virtually all countries with appalling human rights records. Nigeria is supplied by such companies as Codalex (Canada) and Continental Microwave (UK). Companies supplying to Chinese authorities are numerous, but include Phillips (Netherlands) EEV Night Vision (UK), GEC Marconi (UK), GPT-Plessey Telecom (UK), Pilkington PE Ltd (UK) and Siemens Plessey (UK).

The justification advanced by the companies involved in this trade is identical to the justification advanced in the arms trade, i.e. that the technology is neutral. Privacy International's view, expressed vehemently in the introduction to the report, is that the technology can never be neutral. Even those technologies intended for benign uses rapidly develop more sinister purposes.

The Thailand Central Population Database and ID card system, developed by the US based Control Data Systems, involves sophisticated intelligence that has been used for political purposes by the Thai military. This integrated system creates an ID card, electronic fingerprint and facial image, and electronic data link involving the entire population. It spans most government agencies and is controlled by the powerful military/police dominated Interior Ministry. The database was designed following extensive discussions between the Thai authorities and Control Data.

There are a staggering variety of databases in the Thai system. These include: Central Population Database, National Election System, Political Party Database, Political Member Database, Voter listing, Electronic Minority Group Registration System, Electronic Fingerprint Identification System, Electronic Face Identification System, Population and House Report System, National Tax Collection System, Village Information System, Secret Information System, Public Opinion System, Criminal Investigation System, National Security System, Social Security System, Passport Control System, Driver Control System, Gun Registration, Family Registration, Alien Control System and Immigration Control System.

Following the implementation of the system, the evil was compounded by the US Smithsonian Institute, which gave the Thai Government an award for Brave use of Technology. The Thai Ministry of the Interior was then able to wave this award aloft like some Holy Grail in the face of critics of the system.

Similar ID card and smart card systems have been marketed to more than two dozen developing countries. Without exception, they result in wholesale discrimination and hardship for vulnerable people. Such systems can adversely affect the delicate balance pursued by an emerging democracy. The adoption of Information Technology (IT) involves a change to the relationship between citizen and the State. The use of surveillance technologies vastly increases this change.

Numerous investigations and reports in the past decade have highlighted the extent to which the global arms trade nurtures and supports brutal and repressive regimes across the world. The industry and its participants have been put under the microscope by a number of parliamentary inquiries in Europe and North America. Without exception, these have uncovered a complex and profitable trade with few controls and with no ethical compass.

The Privacy International report highlights a hitherto unexplored aspect of the arms industry, sometimes referred to as the Repression Trade. At its most brutal level, these are technologies of social and political control. These technologies involve sophisticated computer-based technology which vastly increases the power of authorities.

Amongst the products exported by Western nations are telephone interception equipment, bugging devices, police and military information systems, ID cards, System X telephone systems, communications logging systems, micro-cameras, parabolic microphones, automatic transcription systems, infra red scopes, night vision equipment, advanced CCTV equipment, geographic information systems, vehicle tracking technology, automated fingerprint systems, biometric technology, cellular intercept systems, computer intercept systems, crowd analysis and monitoring technology and data matching programmes

Much of this technology is used to track the activities of dissidents, human rights activists, journalists, student leaders, minorities, trade union leaders, and political opponents. It is also useful for monitoring larger sectors of the population. With this technology, the financial transactions, communications activity and geographic movements of millions of people can be captured, analysed and transmitted cheaply and efficiently. The emerging information and communications infrastructures of countries can be hijacked for limitless surveillance purposes.

In the absence of meaningful legal or constitutional protections, such technology is inimical to democratic reform. It can certainly prove fatal to anyone of interest to a regime.

The emerging Information Superhighway also poses fundamental threats to developing countries (the Superhighway is a metaphor for the convergence of information and communications systems to form a national and international information web). The 1995 summit of the G7 (the seven richest industrial powers) linked arms with some of the most dominant corporations in the technology industry to form a consensus about how the Superhighway should be built. They agreed to a set of principles that would maximise growth, development and profit. Relatively little attention was paid to the negative impact of the Superhighway on developing countries and on the rights and privacy of citizens of developed countries.

Martin Bangermann, Europe's Commissioner in charge of information technology, has remarked we will not achieve the information society unless we give the free market a free rein. In the context of the trade in surveillance technologies to third world countries, this signals a hands off policy. An unregulated Superhighway is likely to maximise surveillance and increase the power of institutions in control of the technology.

It should be a source of grave concern that the world's telecommunications and computer companies have been moving to force government to back away from regulating information technology. In 1994, under the leadership of the US Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a consortium of the world's leading companies formed the Global Information Infrastructure Commission (GIIC). Headed by the president of Mitsubishi, the chairman of EDS, and the vice chairman of Siemens Corporation, the GIIC intends to create a conglomerate of interests powerful enough to subsume government interest in regulation.

The effort is being funded to a large extent by the World Bank, which in early 1994 appears to have been persuaded by CSIS that unregulated economic investment was more important to developing economies than social and political reform. The corporate sector, argued CSIS, can deliver this economic reform along the Superhighway. And they can do it best if they, not the governments, take the lead.

The unregulated development and export of these technologies creates grave and unnecessary threats to developing countries. The trade requires scrutiny and regulation to help minimise the fatal impact that it can cause. Whether this impact is intended or unforseen, the surveillance industry has a responsibility to ensure that the export and development of its products conform to scrupulous ethical standards. Developed countries should ensure that the export industry is regulated. Technological assessment must be a pre-requisite.

Comprehensive as it is, the Privacy International report hardly scrapes the tip of the surveillance iceberg. For example, it omits the notorious PROMIS surveillance software marketed throughout the world by the US Justice Department. This powerful covert programme has led to widespread fears about the creation of an international tracking system for individuals of interest. The US, French and British governments moves to limit effective encryption systems is also of profound importance to developing countries.

The evidence contained in Big Brother Incorporated makes one fact very clear: without immediate attention, the Repression Trade will ensure that many third world nations never know the meaning of privacy. They may never know the meaning of freedom.

Big Brother Incorporated can be obtained on the Privacy International web site.

Simon Davies is the Director General of Privacy International, a Visiting Law Fellow in the University of Essex, and the author of Big Brother - Australia's growing web of surveillance (Simon & Schuster 1992).