The European Union is working to adopt a new regulation that will introduce tougher export controls for technologies which can be used to spy on citizens.
The new rules, which were proposed last year, are up for a plenary vote early next month in the European Parliament, where they are expected to pass.
Proponents say the proposal is aimed at making the export of “dual-use” items – goods, software and technology designed for both civil and military applications – more transparent.
They also say it will strengthen the protection of human rights by preventing governments outside the bloc from obtaining European technology products that can be used for the online surveillance of their citizens.
“These changes are very important. It shifts the focus not to just human security, but also freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and privacy,” Lucie Krahulcova, of Access Now, a digital rights organisation, told Al Jazeera.
“Governments should be held accountable to make sure the technology that is traded through them is disclosed in a public manner.”
Under the new framework, companies and member states will be obligated to disclose which countries are buying these spy technologies. Currently, this is done voluntarily.
If the current proposal is approved by the European Parliament, the new regulation will then need to be adopted by the European Council and the European Commission before it passes into law.
“Dual-use” items include a wide range of goods, including chemicals, toxins, lasers, sensors, electronics and computers.
The regulations covering their usage were originally aimed at avoiding nuclear proliferation, according to Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament.
“So, a regular water pump that also can be used in nuclear facilities has to go through extra vetting to prevent it being used for nuclear purposes by the buyer,” she told Al Jazeera.
This focus on the development of weapons exists until today, without, however, taking into account recent technological advancements that allow certain “dual-use” items to be used to spy on citizens.
In particular, surveillance technology sold by private firms has made huge leaps, allowing companies to sell software and hardware that can be used, for example, to track people’s mobile-phone or internet usage.
“A lot of commercially available technologies offer authorities potentially devastating spying and hacking capacities,” said Schaake, who has been fighting for years to update the European rules to be more inclusive of surveillance equipment.
“We have to make sure that these technologies don’t get used to abuse human rights.”
Dual-use technologies have legitimate use cases – law enforcement agencies can use the location of a mobile phone for example to check the alibi of a murder suspect.
However, surveillance technology can also be employed to spy on human rights activists, protesters and journalists.
It was this type of technology that was used by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to track and arrest opponents during the 2011’s uprising.
“With these changes, we will get a better view of what each country exports and to which country it gets sent,” said Krahulcova.
“Right now, it’s really hard to actually know how big this business is”
Krahulcova said European governments are not legally obligated to say how many licences are granted, while getting information from the companies themselves is even more difficult.
“Often, small companies selling this tech are part of bigger companies, making it really hard to track everything,” she said, noting that the new laws should provide more insight into the extent of the problem.
“The only way we’ve had so far to find out how big this industry is by following the money.”
Human rights abuses
The ease with which companies are able to sell these technologies was made clear in April, when an investigation by Al Jazeera revealed how remarkably effortless it was to buy “dual-use” technology made by private companies, including European ones.
That investigation revealed that some companies had few or no problems to sell to state actors known for human rights abuses.
Apart from improving transparency, advocates also say the proposed regulation will also strengthen freedom of speech.
Right now, encryption software which ensures people can safely communicate without anyone reading their messages are also marked as “dual-use” technology.
However, under the proposed rules, encryption technologies will be exempted from being labelled as “dual-use”.
“Currently, exporting encryption tech means going through the checks that all the ‘dual-use’ systems have to go through. We don’t want to do that,” said Schaake.
“Encryption is an important tool to protect human rights.”
Both Schaake and Krahulcova said they expected the European Council and European Commission to introduce some changes to their rules, which would limit their transparency. They added, however, that they were happy with the overall proposed changes.
“The European Union sends out a strong statement with these new laws – we are raising the standards,” said Schaake, urging other countries to follow the bloc’s example.
“While we don’t want to hinder companies unnecessarily, we take a targeted approach to protecting human rights across the world … In the end, companies that really don’t want to follow the law may always find a way to avoid it.
“But by implementing the changes we are making now, we will at least take human rights more seriously.”