Freedom flourishes in nations where governments are held accountable by its people through the guarantee of basic rights and strong democratic institutions. Such democratic states are in decline for the 13th consecutive year. The reasons for this are manifold and complex. Technology, however, is one major cause that can turn a democracy, with a functioning opposition; a civil society and basic rights and freedoms into a hellish autocracy.
The 21st century has seen an immense explosion of computation and interconnection. Virtually everyone in the rich developed world and most people in the developing world now own a smartphone with access to the internet. We carry these devices with us from the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep. They connect us to the people we love and allow us access to a previously unimaginable quantity of information.
The Arab Spring in 2010 showed spectacularly what this could mean for dictators. Massive protest and freedom and democracy-demanding crowds managed to organise via messaging apps and social media. With everyone connected, incredibly large groups of demonstrators can be coordinated and quickly organised with little to now hierarchies nor large organisational structures as was necessary in the past. Digital technology, if allowed, to be used can be a godsend for generations of young people born into corrupt autocracies. It might be their way to force government accountability and build up democracies.
So then why are we losing the battle of democracy for over a decade now? The dangers of constant ubiquitous interconnection have not escaped the autocrats and wannabe autocrats of this world. They have jumped on the digital surveillance technology and are becoming reliant on it for their own nefarious purposes. As organisation is quick and decentralised, it is also more vulnerable. Turkeys Endogen, is just one of many examples. Turkey imprisons more journalists and holds more political prisoners per capita than any other country in the world.
The cyber surveillance tools that helped Erdogan bolster his rule and to crush all potential rivals and demonstrations comes from FinFisher in Germany. Today, FinFisher is infamous for exporting digital tools of oppression due to investigative journalism and the technical expertise of Western NGOs, such as Citizen Lab. The company is selling intrusion software that allows the user to entirely take over the smartphones of everyone it infects and even use these to infect other smartphones and computers indirectly. Knowing everything about your opponent allows you to silently take them out. This is exactly what happens around the world today.
Why is that legal, you may ask? European companies like FinFisher can operate legally in the European Union, because they sell their cyber-surveillance items to law enforcement agencies so that they can fight organised crime and terrorism. The German Federal Police uses FinFishers products regularly with judicial oversight and the checks and balances that Germany’s strong democratic institutions offer. The real problem arises when this extremely powerful technology is being paired with ruthless autocrats. These exports are in theory regulated by International Regimes, and in the European Union by the Dual-Use Goods Export Control Regulation.
For cyber-surveillance, it doesn’t work. The Dual Use regulation is currently in the process of reform to make exports of cyber surveillance to dictators a thing of the past. I have been appointed as the Rapporteur for the European Parliament in these negotiations with the European Member States. The process of reform is on-going since 2016 and the European Parliament focuses on effective ways to guarantee human rights and stop the unregulated export of cyber surveillance.
My main concern is to close the legal loopholes that allow unchecked exports and to reign in new biometric types of surveillance technology that do not even necessitate the carrying of a smartphone to be identified in crowds of protestors. Facial recognition and other bio-metric surveillance technologies are on the rise and as we debate the bans of its use in our democracies we cannot allow our companies to sell this technology to dictators around the world.
Democracies are losing the digital arms race because European and Western surveillance know-how makes autocrats invincible. We cannot allow this to continue. The European Union must set an example in the dual use regulation and lead global non-proliferation efforts to turn the tide of 13 years of democratic decline. I fight for this as a member of the European Parliament and a democrat.