German companies supply the world, including authoritarian regimes, with surveillance technology. A ban is not in sight. Human rights activists demand stricter export regulations for such "digital weapons."
Houssam Aldeen was careful. After serving in the Syrian military for two-and-a-half years, he was quite familiar with surveillance technology. The Damascus-based freelance journalist, who also worked as a translator for foreign reporters, opened several bogus e-mail accounts and only used the Internet from public places. He was arrested all the same, and accused of exchanging information with foreign organizations. Apparently, the Syrian secret service monitored Aldeen's conversations.
German companies are among the suppliers who provide technology for comprehensive phone and computer surveillance. In 2010, Siemens provided Syria's Syriatel mobile telecommunications operator with such technology. Bahrain is said to have used monitoring systems from Europe and the US in its spying activities on opposition forces, and there is clear evidence that western technology was used for similar purposes in Libya and Egypt.
Made in Germany
German manufacturers are among the leading suppliers of surveillance technology. They argue the systems are useful in the fight against crime and terrorism. Surveillance equipment enables the monitoring of computers and phones; special software allows controllers to read text messages, spy on communication in the Internet, decode passwords and even locate people.
In the wrong hands, however, surveillance technology quickly becomes a "digital weapon," Christian Mihr, the director of Reporter without Borders Germany, told Deutsche Welle. The organization accuses western companies of selling security technology to authoritarian regimes who also use electronic equipment to find and arrest critics.
Lax export regulations
On a national and EU level, there are few export restrictions on the sale of surveillance technology - in contrast to the situation with the conventional arms trade. Exports to embargoed states like Syria and Iran are currently limited, but only in very few instances are German companies obliged to apply for export permission. If it all, they are subject to moral rather than legal limitations.
Trovicor, a Munich-based IT company that branched out from Nokia Siemens Networks, developed the Monitoring Center (MC). Siemens delivered the technology used for the comprehensive surveillance of Internet and telecommunications to Syria in 2000.
A spokeswoman informed DW in a written statement that the company is bound by contract not to divulge information about customers, states or the extent of deliveries. However, she added, clients are obligated to sign a safeguard clause that stipulates they follow OECD regulations for multinational enterprises. She also said the company ensures that all international export and shipment laws are observed - and they do not deliver to countries involved in a civil war.
Left Party member of the German parliament Jan van Aken does not think much of such companies' moral compasses: "Such firms will never restrict themselves voluntarily," the arms expert says. "If a security company wants to make money, it will even sell to states who abuse human rights - that is their business model."
Once the equipment is delivered, it is almost impossible to check whether the surveillance technology is used for other purposes. Van Aken demands incorporating export limitations for surveillance technology into Germany's Foreign Trade Law (AWG) - and then to strictly monitor the procedure.
No change in sight
Martin Lindner, economic policy spokesman for the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) parliamentary group, opposes tightening export regulations for surveillance technology. "There is hardly a country in the world where exports are looked into as critically and thoroughly as in Germany," Lindner says. Such systems could be delivered and used illegally, but that is true for every single product in the world, he says: "Such technology is not designed for torture."
At present, the German government does not see the need for a change in national export regulations for surveillance technology. In February, the Bundestag passed a law to modernize the AWG without an explicit reference to surveillance technology.
The Economics Ministry points to existing export laws and constraints. In a statement responding to a Deutsche Welle query, the ministry says "first and foremost, effective measures to adapt export controls to political and technical developments must be taken on an international level."
It all comes down to the fact that the Economics Ministry does not want to change the status quo, says Konstantin von Notz, a Greens spokesman for Internet matters. "For the past two years, we have constantly pointed out to the government that this is a growing problem - and they never reacted," von Notz says, adding he hopes Germany and Europe will soon agree to a regulation that would effectively limit the export of surveillance software and infrastructure to states lacking the rule of law. Until then, German surveillance technology will be delivered almost unhindered around the world.