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French spyware executives have been accused of aiding torture

Earlier this week, French authorities accused four former executives the surveillance company Nexa Technologies, formerly known as Amesys, for complicity in torture and war crimes. Between 2007 and 2014, the firm reportedly supplied tools to oversee authoritarian regimes in Libya and Egypt.

A coalition that includes the Interactive Federation for Human Rights, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and other human rights groups claim that the repressive governments of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi used tools to identify dissidents and activists, read their private e-mails and messages and, in some cases, kidnapping, torturing or killing them.

Nexa executives have been accused of selling internet surveillance equipment who intercepted emails, texts and Facebook messages from journalists and dissidents. Executives allegedly sold technology to Gaddafi’s Libyan government in 2007 and Egypt in 2014 include defendants former Amesys boss Philippe Vannier, former president Stéphane Salies and two current Nexe executives: President Olivier Bohbot and CEO Renaud Roques. Attempts by the men to come across the Nexe were unsuccessful.

Investigating judges for crimes against humanity and the war crimes department of the Paris Court will review the evidence to determine whether the four executives will be tried in a criminal court.

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Such indictments are extremely rare. National security experts say international markets for the export of surveillance tools are largely unregulated. Manufacturers of such equipment often refuse restrictions, even those intended to protect against misuse. A An attempt by European journalists for 2017 it is estimated that there were over 230 supervisory companies based in the EU.

“Generally speaking, there is little that the authorities have to do to curb this poisonous market,” said Marietje Schaake, director of international policy at Stanford University’s Center for Cyber ​​Policy and a former member of the European Parliament. While in parliament, Schaake supported new restrictions on the export of cyber-surveillance technology from Europe to countries with a history of human rights violations.

Introduced by EU legislators in 2016 and adopted last year, these new rules require companies to obtain licenses to export certain “dual-use” technologies, such as software capable of monitoring, hacking, or extracting data. Governments reviewing permit applications must assess the likelihood that the tools will be used to violate human rights.

The indictment against the French executives stems from a sale that precedes the new EU regulations, but Schaake hopes to send a message that it is possible to control cyber surveillance equipment. He says it is much easier to regulate sales before the products are in other countries. Western countries are often the most resistant to this idea.

“Companies are setting up these tools for use in the fight against terrorism,” says Schaake. “Those who are truly responsible for torture or abduction are the states that do it, but companies are providing key tools to make that possible.”

Concerns about sales in Libya and Egypt date back to the “Arab Spring” of 2011, when journalists and privacy groups raised alarms to American and European companies furnished surveillance equipment repressive regimes.

In both the US and the EU, export controls have evolved into piece fashion, with a statement from security companies too wide restrictions may penalize research, counterterrorism, or other legitimate uses of software and human rights groups emphasizing their potential supporting authoritarianism.

Last October, the United States updated its rules export control of potentially dangerous software. The Ministry of Trade says human rights will now be needed considerations to consider when granting or denying licenses for companies to make international sales. As in the EU, change is coming after several failed bids for repair. But what that practically means is still in the air.

“You have to think about it in terms of the growing attention that human rights are paying to both European and American circles and the increasing attention being paid to human rights violations in China and elsewhere,” said Garrett Hinck, a national security researcher at Columbia University.

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