Uncovering Big Brother Inc

Updated on 26 August 2022

Impact Case Study

What is the problem

For over two decades we have been documenting an alarming use and spread of surveillance. It is no longer just the wars on terror or drugs or migration that is driving this trend. The management of health crises and distribution of welfare regularly are among others being used to justify this turn to increasingly invasive forms of surveillance. From country to country we see the same ideas and the same profiteers expanding their reach.
When we first released our report on Big Brother Inc in 1996, the role of industry to the growth of surveillance capability had never been exposed before. Today, in an era of intensified cyber conflicts and tech-enabled authoritarianism, exposing and challenging the essential role played by the private sector in the proliferation of surveillance has never been more important.

Why it is important

Governments increasingly rely on the products and services of private companies to expand their surveillance capabilities and harness the power of data. They seek to exploit the corporate data infrastructures and tools built by large and small tech companies in order to spy on and control us.
Very often these collaborations evade scrutiny and transparency - governments and companies try to shield the substance of these collaborations under the cloak of "national security", "commercial interests", and the underlying algorithms under that of "intellectual property rights".
It’s time for real transparency and accountability so that the structures of corporate surveillance are not usurped for government surveillance, and for these novel forms of surveillance to be kept in line with core human rights protections. To ensure that we should first shade the light on the surveillance industry and its role in the spread of surveillance.

What we did

In 1996, we published the first ‘Big Brother Incorporated’ study, identifying the vast numbers of technology firms who were investing in surveillance technologies. We were particularly surprised by the rise of German surveillance technology, not long after the fall of East Germany. That report led to increasing concerns about surveillance technology — by 2001 the European Parliament was investigating ‘technologies of political control’.
We continued to map the deals between industry and government, whether for ID cards or building ‘lawful intercept’ systems. We saw companies such as EDS across South East Asia in the 1990s, then Nokia Siemens in the late 2000s in Iran.
Following the ‘Arab Spring’, it was possible to identify which firms were selling what technologies to some oppressive regimes. By that time a whole new generation of firms and wares had arisen. We visited trade shows of the ‘Wiretapper’s Ball’, and tracked this industry. We worked with civil society organisations to index the firms and their wares — much of which is now available online at courtesy of Transparency Toolkit. Investigations by organisations like Citizen Lab exposed these companies for dealing with oppressive governments; as did some of our investigations where we mapped the firms, their capabilities and the people they affected in Central Asia, Colombia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, Uganda, and elsewhere.
Over the last 4 years we continued to explore and expose the industry providing technical solutions for surveillance in various part of the world. We exposed Huawei activities in Zimbawe, France, Italy, Uganda and other parts of the wold; showed how surveillance industry exploited the war in Ukraine; revealed the tools being snapped up by security agencies in Bangladesh; exposed industry players involved in migrants tracking and private companies behind digital welfare; mapped Palantir's extensive connections with the UK state; monitored Covid-19 tracking solutions and related public-private partnerships; revealed NSO group's acivity and much more.

What we achieved

Large parts of the industry have been exposed.
Export control regulations have been reformed across the EU, affecting companies' abilities to sell and forcing governments to reveal information about where they are selling - allowing the public, journalists and others to hold these companies and governments accountable. We have a guide on accessing and interpreting open-source data on surveillance exports here to help others in their research.
We developed Safeguards for Public-Private Surveillance Partnerships and a Handbook for Civil Society to strengthen targeted advocacy in various parts of the world.
We've also seen a lot of national and international developments that reflected our demands, including: NHS's termination of contract with Palantir; US Congress' calls for sanctions for surveillance companies; creation of the European Parliament's inquiry committee for Pegasus and other spyware.
PI regularly provides evidence, such as information about companies and states practices, to government bodies, including to the European Parliament's inquiry and to national parliamentary oversight committees, in countries such as the UK[MA: Any other countries]. Our work regularly highlights the need for action and is extensively cited by reports including by the European Parliament think-tank and UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression.
Also a direct result of our reveal, advocacy and legal work is a series of regulators' decisions imposing fines and restrictions to Clearview AI's activity.

What we learned

Exposing firms is not enough. Exposing capabilities is not enough either. Stopping the flow of technology is essential, both through stopping their purchasing and deployment, but also by preventing their export.
Seeking regulatory solutions must be done with great care so as to not have serious side-effects. We believed that regulating tools that enabled government hacking could be done through export controls, but were slow to anticipate how restraints on the free flow of research in the US would damage security research, and in turn, security.
At the same time, we attest that continuous, consistent and qualitative work results in greater attention and broader recognition of our expertise by the key regional and international bodies.

What we are doing now

We continue exploring how and why countries around the world - including authoritarian regimes - are procuring these technologies and capabilities in the first place. What we've seen is that this is not just a commercial business: the trade is driven by the world's richest governments which provide countries with the means, incentives and resources to spy on their people, including China, the EU, Russia, the US, and the UK. We are exposing these arrangements and demanding reforms.
We continue to investigate, expose and advocate for transparency and better regulation of surveillance industry and their collaboration with states in various domains including: migration management, health crises management and access to welfare and public services.
We monitor and engage with regional and global structures for more effective monitoring and control of surveillance partnerships and industry activity.