EU moves to stop surveillance tech sales to despots

Digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes will on Friday urge tech firms to figure out how to stop selling tools of repression to non-democratic regimes

Companies should stop selling surveillance and law enforcement technology to repressive regimes, Europe's digital chief will say on Friday.

In the wake of the Wikileaks 'Spy Files' revelations last week, ZDNet UK understands digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes will urge technology firms to come up with a way to avoid "selling despots the tools of their repression", a practice she describes as "to say the least, bad PR".

"Every actor, public and private, must take up their responsibilities," Kroes will tell the Dutch government's Internet Freedom conference on Friday morning. "Companies should be transparent about the technology they are selling in certain countries."

"If technology is used by certain repressive governments to identify innocent citizens and put their life or freedom in danger, we ought to know," Kroes will say, adding that the European Commission "can react with legal measures such as sanctions" in such areas.

The commissioner, who says she is determined to do something about the issue, is working with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on a response. She said further details about that response would follow on Monday.

Tech industry self-regulation may be the answer, Kroes will say, suggesting the Global Network Initiative as a possible model. The Initiative includes Microsoft, Google and Yahoo as members, and aims to come up with a way for the industry to promote freedom of expression and privacy.

"The industry should come up with concrete solutions," Kroes will say. "I don't want to be prescriptive at this stage. But I do want to see some kind of action. For our part, we are ready to support that process with expertise and operational support."

At this point, it is not clear which countries technology firms will be expected to avoid.

In her speech, Kroes will also call for the EU to develop and distribute technological tools to help people in non-democratic countries shield themselves from surveillance and bypass communications filters.

She will also promote the idea of educating people in such countries about the risks they face when using social networks or other technological forms of communication.

Spy files

At the start of December, Wikileaks began publishing hundreds of documents that it dubbed the Spy Files. The files included catalogues, price lists and other information relating to surveillance software and equipment that Western technology companies are selling to customers that include repressive regimes.

One notable example was Gamma International, a British firm that sold a spyware package called FinFisher to the security forces of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. The tool could be disguised as an update for Apple's iTunes to help it proliferate and spy on the person who had unwittingly installed it.

Others listed in the Spy Files included France's Amesys, which offers products for mass interception of communications.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who in early 2010 warned of an 'information curtain' falling over countries such as China and Tunisia, will also be speaking at Friday's event, as will Google chairman Eric Schmidt.

After the Tunisian regime fell this year, Wikileaks published a cable showing that Microsoft had trained law enforcement officials serving ousted Tunisian president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. The company had set up a "program on cyber criminality" to cover the training, in a bid to get the Tunisian government to drop its open-source policy.

Get the latest technology news and analysis, blogs and reviewsdelivered directly to your inbox with <ahref="http:>ZDNet UK'snewsletters.