Challenging Public Private Surveillance Partnerships: A Handbook for Civil Society

As states around the world seek to expand their surveillance capabilities and harness the power of data to deliver public services, they are often tempted to use the services of private technology companies – through public-private partnerships (‘PPPs’). These collaborations are taking on a new form, diverging from traditional public procurement relationships and becoming much more co-dependent.

The privatisation of public responsibilities requires more scrutiny than ever to ensure human rights are not quietly abused. This is particularly true when the systems deployed are used for surveillance and mass processing of personal data. Private companies have been known to play with the limits of what can legally and ethically be done with individuals’ identities and data, without the same level of accountability required of public authorities – a significant affront to fundamental rights when used to deliver a public service.

Civil society has the power to expose the risks and issues that emerge from these partnerships, through investigation and public reporting. But identifying concrete risks and potential human rights abuses is not an easy task for anyone as it requires a multilevel understanding of the tech, law and governance mechanisms involved. Building on our own investigative work and on the expertise of our partners around the world, Privacy International has designed a handbook for civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations, academics and individuals to navigate these partnerships, providing keys to obtain crucial information, understand the technology at stake and identify privacy and governance concerns.

To support anyone trying to find out more about a public-private surveillance partnership and identify key risks and issues, this handbook is divided in to four main sections: the first section covers investigative risks, the second section explains how to gather key information related to the partnership through a variety of means, the third section provides some methods to investigate the technology at play in the partnership, and the fourth section looks into governance concerns and safeguards, including international best practice, data protection issues, and other governance mechanisms.

The checklists provided at the end of this handbook can be used as an overview of key things to investigate, and to help you keep track of your work.

This handbook is intended to help you:

  • Investigate a public-private partnership, find out relevant information
  • Ask the right questions to the partners involved (private and public)
  • Identify concerns related to the technology involved and the governance of the partnership

We have separately developed a set of safeguards for public-private surveillance partnerships, that you can use for advocacy ideas once you have identified concerns through this handbook.

Download the full handbook (pdf)

Download the checklists (pdf)

Télécharger la version française du manuel (pdf)

Descargar la versión completa del manual en español (pdf)

قم بتحميل النسخة العربية الكاملة للدليل (pdf)



With thanks to our partner organisations: ADC, TEDIC, and another organisation that wishes to remain anonymous who contributed to this handbook.

10 Apr 2024
Microsoft pitched the use of OpenAI's DALL-E software to support battlefield operations of the US Department of Defense, in seeming contravention of OpenAI's ban against working in the military field. One of the potential use cases proposed by Microsoft is to use DALL-E, OpenAI's image generation
11 May 2023
Over 60 US cities and counties use Fusus, a "police technology platform that merges public and private cameras with predictive policing and other surveillance tools". Private surveillance camera owners are encouraged to enroll in a police-led program that enables the police to control these cameras
Key Resources

Investigating a public-private partnership comes with a number of legal, technical, and human risks that must be assessed before undertaking any action. These risks change with your research framework and the broader context within which the partnership operates. We suggest you identify and assess the risks related to your investigation project before anything else. To assist you with this task you may refer to the non-exhaustive lists below.

Key Resources

Obtaining adequate information about a public-private partnership is often difficult, especially when sensitive areas of government are involved, such as intelligence and law enforcement. Information about such activities is often purposefully withheld from the public and guarded by excessive laws and punishments.

Key Resources

Technologies at the heart of a public-private partnership can be surrounded by secrecy and opacity making it hard for external actors to assess the risks. From buzzwords to obscure technical terminology, getting a real sense of what the technology at stake is and what it actually does isn’t an easy job. This section is designed to guide you in finding more information about the technology, understanding it, and identifying potential flaws.

Key Resources

Through our investigative work and the work of our partners around the world, we have identified a number of persistent governance issues common to public-private partnerships. We have detailed each of our concerns, and relevant corresponding safeguards, here. In this section we provide some high-level guidance on how to identify these types of concerns.