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.

Police forces around the world have access to increasingly sophisticated technology that enable them to identify and track people in public places. While there may be legitimate policing uses for the technology, serious privacy issues arise because these technologies may gather personal data from large numbers of people, often without their knowledge, and store that data indefinitely, without proper safeguards or independent oversight to prevent abuse.

Such technologies will have an increasingly chilling effect on the right to protest, the right to free speech and the right to assembly, as people will be concerned that they will be added to police databases just by turning up at a peaceful protest, or attending an event like a concert or sports match.

We are campaigning for proper regulation of policing technologies to protect our privacy when we are in public.


Surveillance, by its very nature, impacts on personal privacy. Sharing surveillance intelligence with other governments greatly exacerbates the interference with personal privacy. It might not just be your own government that holds sensitive information about you, but potentially many other governments all over the world.

For this reason, intelligence sharing should be subject to safeguards that are already well-established in international human rights law. Without proper safeguards, states can use intelligence sharing as a way of outsourcing surveillance to each other, bypassing any constraints and limits on their own intelligence gathering - in effect 'I'll spy for you, if you spy for me'.

Unregulated intelligence sharing can also contribute to or facilitate serious human rights abuses, such as unlawful arrest or detention, or torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Privacy International is therefore calling for greater transparency and oversight of intelligence sharing between governments. Our recommendations include that governments establish publicly accessible legal frameworks governing intelligence sharing, and that oversight bodies be granted increased powers to ensure intelligence sharing arrangements comply with international and domestic law.

The use of ‘mobile phone extraction’ tools enables police forces to download all of the content and data from people’s phones. This can apply to suspects, witnesses and even victims – without their knowledge.

With no clear policies or guidance on the use of this technology, individuals are unaware of their legal rights in terms of:

  • whether data is only taken when necessary and proportionate;
  • getting the police to delete this data when there is no legal reason to retain it, particularly if they are innocent of any crime;
  • ensuring data is held securely to prevent exposure of their personal data as a result of loss of records, misuse or security breach. 

As the use of this technology is unregulated, we don’t know how this data is used, how it is stored and secured, and if it’s ever even deleted.

Privacy International is calling for:

  • the use of this intrusive technology is properly regulated, with independent oversight so that abuse and misuse does not go undetected;
  • a proper warrantry regime to be implemented, so that the technology cannot be used arbitrarily;
  • people to be informed of their rights if the police want to search their phone.

Around the world, Privacy International is fighting against the most intrusive surveillance laws and campaigning to make sure they protect people’s privacy. 

Countries with the largest defence and security sectors are transferring legislation, capabilities, and practices to governments and agencies around the world, including to some of the most authoritarian countries in the world. The US, Germany, France, Russia, and the UK are all major providers of such security assistance, as is the European Union and other multilateral organisations. Similarly, China and Russia are both pursuing international security alliances with regional states. Such cooperation and assistance comes in four main forms:

  • Direct equipping of military and security forces
  • Training of military and security forces
  • Financing of their operations and procurement
  • Facilitation of exports of security and military equipment by industry (for example by arranging and underwriting deals).

As security increasingly means more surveillance, security assistance is spreading and intensifying surveillance around the world.

Privacy International is fighting back against hacking powers increasingly used by governments around the world for surveillance.