Surveillance tools: Not just for spies now

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“They were only one of several dozen companies all making the same claims and pushing their own brand of repressive technologies,” Privacy International researcher Eric King said.

Some of the companies active in the marketplace are large computer or communications companies that have developed niche security and surveillance businesses, alongside the sale of conventional goods and services.

Chinese telecom giant ZTE, for instance, markets surveillance products in addition to its phone networks and switching equipment. Big U.S. technology companies such as Cisco Systems Inc. and Northrop Grumman Corp. also sell surveillance equipment and services, according to the database.

Many of the companies are startups in a market that did not exist a decade ago.

Elaman, a German company that sells a British-designed cybersurveillance package called FinFisher, says buyers can use its equipment to “identify an individual’s location, their associates and members of a group, such as political opponents.”

Russia’s Speech Technology Center claims its biometric voice-recognition technology can isolate and identify hundreds of individually targeted voices from daily digital recordings of thousands of phone calls.

All of the companies say they operate within the law and sell only to government and law-enforcement agencies and other authorized users.

After the Arab Spring uprisings, though, protesters in Egypt, Libya and other countries found evidence that deposed dictators had used surveillance technology to spy on anti-government activists. Syria is using sophisticated surveillance technology to intercept even secure communication channels such as Skype.

Campaigners are calling for the law to be tightened.

“When it comes to surveillance technology, merely operating within the boundaries of current legislation and regulation is insufficient,” Privacy International spokeswoman Emma Draper said. “The fact these companies are selling what are essentially tools of political control to oppressive regimes with impunity can no longer be tolerated.”

Some observers say the situation is more complicated.

“It’s too hard a problem to resolve with a knee-jerk restriction on exports,” said Stewart Baker, a former national security official.

He said the United States faces the same problem as it did with high-technology export controls.

“Except the West doesn’t really have any obvious comparative advantage over China and Russia, as far as surveillance technology is concerned,” he said.

“We could cut off exports from Europe and the United States, and that would simply mean that the market is taken over by Chinese and Russian companies.”

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