Contesting Government Data and System Exploitation

In this section, you can read our report ‘Teach ’em to Phish: State Sponsors of Surveillance’, as well as access a range of other resources about how powerful governments are financing, training and equipping countries — including authoritarian regimes — with surveillance capabilities.

’Teach ‘em to Phish’ warns that rather than increasing security, state ‘security assistance’ programmes are entrenching authoritarianism, further facilitating human rights abuses against people, and diverting resources from long-term development programmes.

The report explores a range of examples of 'security assistance' programmes:

  • The report provides examples of how US Departments of State, Defense, and Justice all facilitate foreign countries’ surveillance capabilities, as well as an overview of how large arms companies have embedded themselves into such programmes, including at surveillance training bases in the US.
  • The EU and individual European countries are sponsoring surveillance globally. The EU is already spending billions developing border control and surveillance capabilities in foreign countries to deter migration to Europe.
  • Surveillance capabilities are also being supported by China’s government under the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ and other efforts to expand into international markets.

As our report shows, instead of putting resources into long-term development solutions, such programmes further entrench authoritarianism and spur abuses around the world — the very things which cause insecurity in the first place. If these ‘benefactor’ countries truly want to assist other countries to be secure and stable, they should build schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure, and promote democracy and human rights.

Surveillance is a power generator. The now unprecedented surveillance capabilities of governments outstrip the laws that are there to safeguard our rights. As a result, our security, privacy and freedom are all being undermined. Privacy International is holding government and industry to account and demanding meaningful safeguards.

Developments in technology have enabled governments to record, collect, process, and analyse our information on an unprecedented scale. It is now possible to monitor entire populations, including the most intimate details about our lives.

These powers can be used to protect our security, but without proper safeguards these capabilities can also be abused and undermine the very values they seek to protect. Our privacy allows us to control our lives and boundaries, to protect ourselves and our dignity, while also forming the basis of many other rights, including freedom to express yourself and the freedom to organise. Without necessary democratic controls, state surveillance is used to crush dissent and abuse human rights.

Privacy International is fighting to ensure that privacy acts as a check on state surveillance.

Reforming surveillance laws

The countries with the biggest defence and security budgets are leading the way in developing and deploying surveillance capabilities. But every country is clamouring to catch up. These capabilities go considerably farther than the domestic and international laws that are there to protect our privacy.

Through research, campaigning, and strategic litigation, PI promotes laws to make surveillance accountable, transparent, subject to oversight, and in line with human rights requirements. We do this by taking on some of the most powerful and secretive agencies and precedent-setting laws.

We work at the international level, such as at the United Nations and the European Union, to challenge laws and practices in strategically-chosen countries to ensure the maximum possible impact in our global fight for surveillance reform.

Restraining state surveillance

Surveillance capabilities are rapidly spreading across the world. Surveillance is seen by all governments – and the industry keen to sell surveillance capabilities – as the solution to complex problems of terrorism, crime, and migration.

For years, Privacy International has been exposing the international industry that exists to develop and sell surveillance technologies, to democratic and authoritarian governments alike. More work is needed to also uncover the ways in which the companies we entrust with our data and communications are providing governments with intrusive access, without necessary controls or limits.

Privacy International holds to account both the governments who conduct surveillance and the companies who enable it. We are challenging governments’ powers, advocating and litigating for stronger protections. We are shining a light on the surveillance trade, exposing the companies, the buyers, and the impact on human rights. We are advocating for good practices and strong laws that protect democracy and human rights worldwide.