Teach ‘em to Phish: State Sponsors of Surveillance

Long Read

Privacy International (PI) has today released a new report, 'Teach 'em to Phish: State Sponsors of Surveillance', showing how countries with powerful security agencies are training, equipping, and directly financing foreign surveillance agencies.

Spurred by advances in technology, increased surveillance is both powered by and empowering rising authoritarianism globally, as well as attacks on democracy, rights, and the rule of law.

As well as providing a background to the issue, the report provides data and examples of how such assistance programmes are being implemented around the world:

  • In 2001, the US spent $5.7 billion in security aid; in 2017 it spent over $20 billion. In 2015, military and non-military security assistance in the US amounted to an estimated 35% of its entire foreign aid expenditure. US Departments of State, Defense, and Justice all facilitate foreign countries' surveillance capabilities, with large arms companies taking advantage and embedding themselves deeply into such programmes, including at surveillance training bases in the US. Data shows how these agencies have provided communications intercept and other surveillance technology, how they fund wiretapping programmes, and how they train foreign spy agencies in surveillance techniques around the world.
  • The EU and individual European countries are already spending billions developing border control and surveillance capabilities in foreign countries, largely to ensure they to deter migration to Europe. For example, the EU is supporting Sudan's leader with tens of millions of Euros aimed at capacity building for border management. The EU is now looking to massively increase its expenditure aimed at building border control and surveillance capabilities globally under the forthcoming Multiannual Financing Framework, which will determine its budget for 2021-2027. Other EU projects include developing the surveillance capabilities of security agencies in Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Somalia and Iraq and elsewhere. European countries such as France, Germany, and the UK are sponsoring surveillance worldwide, for example, providing training and equipment to "Cyber Police Officers" in Ukraine, as well as to agencies in Saudi Arabia, and across Africa.
  • Surveillance capabilities are also being supported by China's government under the 'Belt and Road Initiative' and other efforts to expand into international markets. Chinese companies have reportedly supplied surveillance capabilities to Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. In Ecuador, China Electronics Corporation supplied a network of cameras - including some fitted with facial recognition capabilities - to the country’s 24 provinces, as well as a system to locate and identify mobile phones. 

Such assistance is facilitating rights abuses, reinforcing authoritarianism, can undermine governance, facilitate corruption, can illegitimately equip non-state actors, and endanger inter-communal relations.

These programmes also come at the expense of other foreign expenditure, particularly aid and development spending. The EU, for example, is diverting billions of euros in development money towards projects aimed at increasing surveillance and border controls to tackle issues around migration. In effect, the EU is spending billions to fund foreign countries, including authoritarian leaders, if they promise to keep people from Europe’s shores. And it is now planning to increase this by billions more.

Such sponsorship is not only driving increased surveillance throughout the majority world, it is a cornerstone of how powerful spy agencies gain cooperation and intelligence from foreign counterparts, and it is integral to how countries exert influence and project power.

The Alternative?

Insecurity from things like terrorism, political issues around migration - as well as lobbying from arms companies with vested interests - means that sponsorship of foreign countries’ surveillance capabilities is here to stay. Therefore, it should be made to deliver actual security that is both sustainable and human-focused. Those in power can do so by:

  • Ensuring no development or aid money is diverted for border control or surveillance. The best long-term solution to insecurity and migration is people having access to education, healthcare, and economic justice
  • Prioritising support for good governance, rule of law, and human rights in any assistance provided to countries’ security agencies
  • Ensuring there exist effective safeguards which prohibit the support to any agency or individual if there is a risk that it may be lead to human rights abuses
  • Ensuring more transparency over these projects, particularly in terms of who is being supported, with what, and how risks have been mitigated 
  • Ensuring there exists sufficient monitoring and accountability for how capabilities are used by recipients
  • Promoting adherence to international human rights law when it comes to facilitating surveillance capabilities: for example, techniques which are unlawful should not be supported, such as mass, untargeted surveillance, systems of direct access to networks, unlawful data retention, or state hacking. Financing, training, or equipping should instead be based promoting adherence to the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance.

Privacy International is working to achieve this. We’re doing so by working with partners to uncover which capabilities are being provided and to who, how they are being used, which arms companies are profiting, and finding out the extent to which they are facilitating abuses and empowering authoritarianism. We need to put as much pressure on agencies, institutions, and policy-makers, and work with journalists, activists, and people from around the world to bring the change we need. 

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