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EU under fire for surveillance tech transfer to repressive regimes in Africa

The European Commission failed to ensure protection of civil liberties when transferring technology with potential surveillance capacity to African countries, the European Ombudsman has found.

More than a few African states have long histories of human rights abuses, so the decision by the EU’s oversight body is not entirely surprising.

It follows a year-long inquiry initiated by complaints filed by organizations such as Privacy International, Access Now, the Border Violence Monitoring Network, Homo Digitalis, the International Federation for Human RIghts, and Sea-Watch.

The surveillance-enabling technology was transferred to 26 African nations as part of the EU’s multi-billion Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. The tech helped countries collect data to build biometric ID systems on a massive scale.

That itself wouldn’t be so bad, but the technology also helped to train police in surveillance techniques including social media monitoring, intercepting internet content, and wiretapping. According to critics, this kind of tech is a huge aid to autocrats seeking to remain in power indefinitely.

In 2021, a complaint was filed by Privacy International arguing that the EU should have taken out a human rights impact assessment prior to rolling out the technology. It claimed that most of the governments did not have quality infrastructure to deal with potential abuse that comes with surveillance on this scale.

In the complaints, methods to track and examine internet users in Morocco and Algeria were examined. There’s also a case of Cameroon, where the government has routinely cracked down on dissent and shut down the internet for more than 230 days between 2017 and 2018.

And the European Ombudsman now found that “the Commission was not able to demonstrate that the measures in place ensured a coherent and structured approach to assessing the human rights impacts.”

Ioannis Kouvakas, Senior Legal Officer at Privacy International, said: “This landmark decision in response to our complaint marks a turning point for the European Union’s external policy and sets a precedent that will hopefully protect the rights of communities in some of the most vulnerable situations for the years to come.”

According to POLITICO, European tech champions such as Eric Leandri, the founder of the privacy-focused search engine Qwant, also have no qualms about selling sensitive technology to African autocrats and dictators.

Leandri’s new company Altrnativ is now blamed for selling sophisticated predator spyware and bulk-surveillance tools to several African countries such as Benin, Chad, Cameroon, Comoros, Gabon, and the Republic of the Congo.

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