Swiss Data Protection Commissioner Orders Government To Publicly Release Surveillance Tech Export Licenses

from the radical,-if-forced,-transparency dept

This is a very cool development in the world of government transparency.

It’s not often a government entity forces another entity to expose information it would desperately like to keep secret. But it happened in Switzerland, following an open records court battle by Tagblatt, which sought information on export licenses granted to local surveillance tech purveyors. The agency in charge of the licenses didn’t want these revealed. The agency in charge of making determinations about what can be withheld from the public said, “Too bad.”

In an enormous breakthrough for those seeking transparency and accountability to the shadowy surveillance industry, the Swiss Government has been forced to publish the list of export licenses for surveillance technologies and other equipment, including details of their cost and destination.

The decision by the Federal Information and Data Protection Commissioner comes on the heels of consistent pressure from Privacy InternationalSwiss journalists, and several Members of Parliament on policymakers, government officials, and companies in Switzerland over the past year and a half. The commissioner’s decision was the result of a FOI challenge filed against the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) for its refusal to reveal information regarding the destination of the pending exports for surveillance technologies.

The beneficiary of this release by SECO is, of course, everyone who’s interested in government accountability and transparency, especially when it involves an area of government work that tends to shrouded in often impenetrable secrecy.

The most direct beneficiary — Swiss news agency Tagblatt — has plenty to say about the release of this information, including how much SECO simply did not want to reveal the countries Swiss surveillance tech providers sell to. (The following was translated by Google Translate, so apologies for the clunky English.)

The Seco does not act entirely voluntarily: Our newspaper only received the list after it requested access to the administration in 2013 based on the principle of transparency. At the end of 2014, the federal data protection officer recommended granting access, although Seco wanted to refuse this. [The Data Protection Commissioner] picks [Seco’s] arguments to pieces. It didn’t even provide a minimal justification. But that’s not all: Seco was unable to prove why the announcement of the recipients was affecting Switzerland’s foreign policy relations.

Those are the arguments SECO raised in its failed attempt to keep these export licenses under wraps. And this is why it didn’t want to release this information.

The elite RAB unit in Bangladesh is being pilloried for human rights violations. Ethiopia is a repressive country. It ranks 137th out of 179 in the press freedom rankings. Azerbaijan, an authoritarian regime, performs even worse. All three countries recently procured surveillance technology in Switzerland. This is shown in a list by the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco) of the export applications approved in 2014. 

The technology these countries acquired from Swiss tech purveyors are IMSI catchers — cell tower spoofers capable of forcing all phones in the area to connect to it so investigators can locate sought devices or (if enabled) intercept communications. Twenty-one export licenses were issued in 2014, with the list encompassing a long list of human rights abusers.

While Ethiopia, Kuwait, Qatar, Lebanon, Indonesia, Lithuania and Thailand received Imsi catchers from Switzerland for larger sums, Seco only issued temporary permits for recipients such as Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Morocco and Tunisia .

The approved list for full licenses doesn’t exactly suggest a whole lot of discretion from Swiss IMSI manufacturers. Nor does it say much about SECO, which allowed these sales (and demonstrations) to happen. The list of denied license applications (which includes Russia, Yemen, and Turkmenistan) suggests some restraint by SECO. But the fact that Swiss spy tech makers requested the licenses shows they are just as willing to sell to terrible governments as other surveillance tech purveyors who’ve made international headlines repeatedly. (Yes, we’re talking about Israel’s NSO Group. And, to a lesser extent, Italy’s Hacking Team.)

And it’s not just IMSI catchers. Plenty of human rights violators were on the list of potential customers for internet surveillance tech sold by Swiss companies. That those violators were unable to access this tech is largely due to the Snowden leaks, which forced a lot of countries to look more closely at their own spying efforts and surveillance contractors.

In early 2014 several companies withdrew their licences for internet monitoring as well as several, but not all for mobile phone monitoring, following the media spotlight in late 2013, questions raised by Swiss Members of Parliament, and the refusal of the Government to make a decision on the licences, For the very first time, SECO has now been forced to release under Freedom of Information, that the retracted requests were destined for Ethiopia, Indonesia, Yemen, Qatar, Malaysia, Namibia, two licences for Oman, Russia, Chad, Taiwan, Turkmenistan, UAE, and China.

That’s a pretty nasty group of customers to want to sell to. And that the companies appear to have been deterred by a series of leaks suggests they were more motivated by potential backlash from the Snowden revelations, rather than any sense of responsibility or propriety. You don’t have to sell to the worst governments in the world. But, like far too many other surveillance tech purveyors, Swiss companies seemed more than willing to sell powerful spy tech to governments they knew with certainty would abuse it.

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Companies: tagblatt

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