SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The federal government approved exports of surveillance and jamming technology, not legal in the United States, to dictatorial regimes worldwide, including Syria, Libya and China, the Electronic Frontier Foundation claims in a federal FOIA complaint.
The nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) sued the Department of Commerce, demanding that the Cabinet department and its Bureau of Industry and Security provide records of “the agency’s processing of applications for the export to foreign nations ‘of devices, software, or technology primarily used to intercept communication.'”
The EFF claims that events during the so-called “Arab Spring” show that dictators use Western technology to quash uprisings. It wants to know how and why despots get access to U.S. surveillance and filtering devices.
“Recent political upheaval in the Middle East has demonstrated both the promise – and peril – that Western technology provides for citizens living under repressive regimes,” the complaint states. “For example, social networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook provided a valuable tool for dissidents and protesters to disseminate information during the revolution in Tunisia, yet at the same time technology developed by Western firms such as McAfee was being used by Tunisian officials to intercept and block communications on the Internet.
“Tunisia’s experience is by no means unique: surveillance and filtering technology developed in the West has been linked to regimes throughout the Middle East and the world – including Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen and China.
“The federal government, and defendant in particular, is an active participant in the export of this technology. In order to export some types of equipment used to intercept, monitor or block communications, American companies must apply for and receive licenses from defendant.” (Citations to press reports omitted.)
The EFF says it has been filing Freedom of Information Act requests with the Department of Commerce for years regarding the licensing of these technologies outside the United States.
“According to defendant’s response to a separate FOIA request, since 2007 for at least one category of technology requiring a license – the export of devices used for ‘surreptitious listening’ – defendant has received and granted applications for export to Syria, Jordan, Gabon, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, Iraq and Mexico. The applications – and the licenses ultimately granted for the export of this technology – are not currently available to the public,” EFF states in its complaint.
In May, the EFF says, it sent an FOIA request to the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Information and Security, asking for all agency records created from 2006 to the present “concerning ‘the export of devices, software or technology primarily used to intercept or block communications.'”
Specifically, the group says it asked for a list of granted and denied licenses and all agency policies concerning technology “primarily useful for the surreptitious interception of wire, oral or electronic communications.”
The EFF says the Commerce Department released 2 pages of records in June but withheld all license applications, citing an exemption in FOIA. The EFF filed an administrative appeal on June 11, challenging the department’s withholding of information and the adequacy of its search for records.
“To date, defendant has failed to respond to plaintiff’s administrative appeal, in violation of the 20 working-day statutory deadline. Defendant has wrongfully withheld the requested records from plaintiff,” EFF says in its complaint.
The EFF seeks an injunction ordering the Commerce Department to turn over the records it requested, and to waive processing fees. And it wants it fast-tracked.
The EFF is represented by house attorneys Mark Rumold and Jennifer Lynch.