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Building Syria's surveillance state: A Privacy International investigation

This statement was originally published on privacyinternational.org on 12 December 2016.

The investigation was done with the assistance of Netzpolitik.

The Arab Spring of 2011 transformed the political landscape of the Middle East and Gulf. The scale of the popular uprisings seemingly caught off guard the governments of Syria, Egypt, and Libya among others, leading to brutal crackdowns, civil wars and instability that continue to this day.

Yet in the years leading up to the sweeping civilian revolt across the region, these governments spent millions of dollars developing sophisticated surveillance systems that they deployed against their citizens.

Today, Privacy International launches a new investigative report, Open Season: Building Syria's Surveillance State, based on hundreds of original documents and pieces of correspondence related to the surveillance trade in this region leading up to and during the Arab Spring. Among these documents is evidence of the Syrian government's ambitious plans and projects to monitor the national communications infrastructure, the technical details of which are revealed for the first time.

From 2007–2012, the Syrian government built nationwide communications monitoring systems through at least four ambitious projects, the technical specifications of which are revealed in this report. Western businesses, including RCS SpA (Italy) and VASTech (South Africa), were important contributors to Syria's repressive surveillance state and other companies, including Amesys (France), competed for the opportunities on offer.

This report also examines the vital role of middleman companies in the surveillance trade. These companies act primarily as resellers, brokers, logistics coordinators, and intermediaries between the surveillance technology manufacturers and their clients. They court and secure clients on the ground, smooth over logistical difficulties, and provide other services for a percentage of the total profit. This report closely examines one such company, Dubai-based Advanced German Technology (AGT), in supporting the construction of surveillance systems in Syria and further afield in the decade leading up to the Arab Spring revolts of 2011 and 2012.

In one transaction from 2008 and 2009, RCS and AGT proposed the use of US-origin equipment in a project to intercept the communications networks of a satellite internet service provider, Aramsat, according to documents analysed by Privacy International. US sanctions and export control regulations in force at the time of this project restricted the exportation or re-exportation of certain US-origin goods to the country including communications interception equipment. All responses related to the statements in the report received by PI by the time of publication are included in the annex of the report.

The Syrian government of president Bashar Al-Assad was intensifying its repression against dissidents and opposition groups at the same time as it was consolidating its surveillance capacities. Surveillance by both human and technological means was an important contributor to the repression that culminated in the 2011 crisis and ensuing civil war. To date, Al-Assad's government reportedly continues to maintain control over access to the internet and broadband, and some of the surveillance architecture from these projects remains in place. The roles of several Western companies including AREA SpA (Italy) and Qosmos (France), who have been identified as selling surveillance technology to Syria have been the subject of inquiries in the US and France, respectively.

Neighbouring governments engaged in repression of domestic political dissent also purchased similar technologies. AGT facilitated a particularly lucrative contract for the Libyan government of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi on behalf of South African surveillance company VASTech through a complex web of consultants and companies. Funds from this single-most profitable project financed much of AGT's affairs.

The lead up to the Arab Spring was open season for surveillance companies — they provided technologies to eager government clients widely known to be publicly engaged in repression. They should share some responsibility for how their technologies are used.

Privacy International calls on export authorities to make all exports of the surveillance technologies discussed in this report conditional on rigorous, independent human rights impact assessments, so as to minimize the potential that these technologies will be abused.

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