The Ministry for Economic Development should revoke export license to Area

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[June 30, update: the Ministry confirmed to Il Fatto Quotidiano that the license to Area spa to Egypt is revoked]


Today, the Italian Ministry of Economic Development will decide whether to revoke the currently suspended export license to Area, a company under review for supply of surveillance technologies to Syrian intelligence. If true, the Syrian regime could have used the technology to spy on private communications during and after the Arab Spring. We are leading a coalition of NGOs urging the Ministry to follow up on its January announcement to revoke Area’s export license.

Last January, together with Privacy International and Hermes Center, we wrote to the Ministry asking for clarification and action after the announcement that Area would be authorized to sell network monitoring technology to the Technical Research Department (TRD) — an obscure Egyptian intelligence agency. A statement by the Ministry on 23 January 2017 followed and promised that, “at the end of the review process, authorization has been suspended and will be revoked at the next meeting of the Advisory Committee.

Last April, an Al Jazeera documentary entitled Spy Merchants had shown — through undercover investigations — Italian and international companies, Area being one among them, competing to export surveillance equipment and maintain software installed by countries that systematically violate human rights of their population, including Iran and South Sudan.

We reported the news on our website (without mentioning the involved individuals), asking the Italian Ministry for greater transparency on Italian-issued licenses. Later, we received a letter from the lawyer of an Area employee threatening legal proceedings in relation to the article.

A resource on the issue of export controls

Today, in an effort to raise awareness on the subject, we are also publishing an introductory guide to the issue of such exports (also available in Italian).

Several Italian and European companies produce this software, and some may violate established laws — which are unfortunately deficient — inherently leading to surveillance and torture under repressive regimes. Almost weekly, we hear new stories about governments using these technologies to monitor dissidents, journalists and lawyers: we need more transparency and we ask the Ministry to make this information available.

The European Union is currently undergoing a revision of its export controls regulation in order to anchor stronger human rights standards in the process. According to the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), states bear the responsibility to protect against business-related human rights harms, and to ensure through legislation, regulation, and the courts that companies operate with respect to international human rights standards.

Italy appears well aware of its duties under the UNGPs, having commendably issued a National Action Plan on Business & Human Rights in December 2016. While the Plan does not mention surveillance or the impact of Italian businesses on the right to privacy, it does commit to “develop industrial relations between social partners and multi-stakeholders initiatives to achieve better implementation of human rights in the conduction of economic activities, in specific business sectors and along the entire supply chain.” We recommend authorities act on this commitment and undertake intensive and inclusive studies on Italian surveillance technology sector, and its relations with rights-abusing governments.

“Italy is the prime example of how the existing EU framework fails to protect activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and regular users from the detrimental impact of cyber-surveillance technology. The Commission’s effort to bring attention to the impact of this technology on freedom of expression and privacy is needed in order to prevent EU member states from being so complacent and lax about human rights violations in third countries.” – Lucie Krahulcova, EU Policy Associate at Access Now.

The UN Human Rights Committee, the official body interpreting the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has raised surveillance technology exports as an area of concern for Italy’s compliance with its international obligations. Last March, during the review of Italy’s obligations under the ICCPR, the Human Rights Committee expressed its concerns about “allegations that companies in the State of the investigation provided online surveillance equipment to foreign governments who have committed serious violations of human rights,” and recommended that the Italian authorities “take measures to ensure that all companies within their jurisdiction, in particular those producing technology, respect human rights standards in their activities abroad.