Surveillance tech firms complicit in MENA human rights abuses

Research finds companies are profiting from surveillance technologies that facilitate human rights abuses against migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in the Middle East and North Africa, with little to no oversight

Surveillance technology companies are “deeply implicated” in human rights abuses against migrants across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), says a report from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

Based on its direct engagement with 24 firms involved in the deployment of surveillance technologies for migration management and border control purposes throughout the MENA region, the Resource Centre found that the companies operate with a distinct lack of transparency, and have failed to establish adequate grievance mechanisms for those affected by their products.

None of the companies, for example, stated which countries they operate in or which governments they sell their services or equipment to, and although four – Airbus, Thales Group, G4S and IrisGuard – said they undertake human rights impact assessments, none disclosed details of their due diligence processes.

Airbus was also the only company to confirm that employees, suppliers and third parties could raise anonymous complaints concerning human rights abuses facilitated by its technologies.

Other companies examined by the Resource Centre include Cisco, Cellebrite, Elbit Systems, Sony, AnyVision, Leonardo and BAE Systems.

The Resource Centre noted that governments in the MENA region are increasingly “purchasing and using powerful digital tools, ranging from spyware and wiretapping tools to facial recognition technology for targeted and mass surveillance”.

It added: “These tools are often used to silence activists and journalists, and repress organised opposition, as invasive laws on national security and anti-terrorism facilitate state practices which infringe on people’s rights and fundamental freedoms. This empowers companies which have little fear of being held accountable.”

The Resource Centre the private companies surveyed are accused of being involved in a variety of abuses, including: operating drones over the Mediterranean to monitor migrants’ movement without rescuing them; forcing millions of Syrian refugees in Jordan to exchange their iris scans and biometric data for monetary or food assistance without meaningful consent; and deploying facial recognition and predictive policing for racial profiling and targeting of Palestinians crossing checkpoints in the West Bank.

“When operating in conflict-affected or high-risk regions as the MENA region, the surveillance sector must undertake heightened human rights due diligence and, if it cannot do so or it identifies evidence of harm, it should stop selling its technology to companies or governments,” said Dima Samaro, MENA regional researcher and representative at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.  

“Lack of adequate due diligence measures by private companies will only worsen the situation for those from marginalised communities, putting their lives in jeopardy as the absence of robust regulation and effective mechanisms in the region allows surveillance technologies to be operated freely and without scrutiny.” 

The report added that, although the United Nations’ (UN) Guiding principles on business and human rights were adopted a decade ago – which establish that companies must take proactive and ongoing steps to identify and respond to the potential or actual human rights impacts of their business – the principles’ non-binding, voluntary nature means there are “glaring gaps in human rights safeguards” at the firms.

It further added that the implications of its findings for people on the move are grave, particularly given the lack of regulation around surveillance globally. “While migration control is a legitimate state action, evidence increasingly points to surveillance and monitoring technology, including iris recognition, facial scanning and unmanned drones, being used in ways which threaten the fundamental freedoms and rights of these communities and broader society,” it said.

The Resource Centre concluded by calling on MENA governments to stop their use of “invasive surveillance technologies and services” until proper regulation is in place; calling on the companies to stop selling these technologies until they have implemented robust human rights practices; and calling on investors to strengthen their human rights policies to avoid funding companies that provide equipment and services to authoritarian governments.

In August 2021, a similar survey of venture capital (VC) investment firms and accelerator programmes conducted by Amnesty International found that, of the 50 VC firms and three accelerators surveyed, only one – Atomico – had due diligence processes in place that could potentially meet the standards set out by the UN’s guiding principles on business and human rights.

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“Our research has revealed that the vast majority of the world’s most influential venture capitalist firms operate with little to no consideration of the human rights impact of their decisions,” said Michael Kleinman, Silicon Valley director of Amnesty Tech, at the time. “The stakes could not be higher – these investment titans hold the purse strings for the technologies of tomorrow, and with it, the future shape of our societies.”

While the Resource Centre report focuses on the MENA region, the problematic use of surveillance technologies is a global issue.

In March 2022, for example, Computer Weekly reported that the UK government is spending tens of millions of pounds on border surveillance technologies – including various means of aerial surveillance, such as the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones), and artificial intelligence (AI)-powered satellite surveillance – to deter migrants from crossing the English Channel, rather than using those resources to provide safe passage.

According to lawyers, human rights groups and migrant support organisations, although these technologies do have the capacity to protect people’s lives if used differently, they are currently deployed with the clear intention of deterring migrants from crossing – or otherwise helping to punish those that do.

“We know the state has the ability to prevent people drowning in the sea – tech is a lens through which to understand power in society, and nowhere is that more clear that in immigration and border enforcement,” said Petra Molnar, associate director of the Refugee Law Lab, a research and advocacy group that looks at the impact of new technologies on refugees.

“It’s not about not knowing what’s happening; it’s making deliberate choices to [use tech to] sharpen borders and make it more difficult for people to come.”

In June 2019, David Kaye, then the UN Human Rights Council’s mandated expert on freedom of expression, published a report that called for an immediate moratorium on the use, transfer and sale of surveillance tools globally.

During the Council’s 41st session, where he presented his findings, Kaye described the international situation as a “surveillance free-for-all in which states and industry are essentially collaborating in the spread of technology that is causing immediate and regular harm to individuals worldwide”.

He added in the report itself: “The seller’s intentions may be legitimate. It may be that companies genuinely intend their products to be deployed for ‘lawful interception’ by authorised public authorities against legitimate targets, with the authorisation of judicial or other independent actors.

“However, this cannot be known for certain because every aspect of such collaboration – from due diligence and sales to end-user support – typically operates with limited oversight and transparency.”

In August 2021, in the wake of revelations about NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, a number of UN special rapporteurs reiterated Kaye’s call for a moratorium on the sale and transfer of “life-threatening” surveillance technologies, at least until there are guarantees that it can be used in full compliance with international human rights standards.

They warned in a statement that it was “highly dangerous and irresponsible” to allow the surveillance technology sector to become a “human rights-free zone”.

They added: “Such practices violate the rights to freedom of expression, privacy and liberty, possibly endanger the lives of hundreds of individuals, imperil media freedom, and undermine democracy, peace, security and international cooperation.”

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