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Surveillance Software Key Concern at Internet Governance Meeting

An illustration picture shows a man using a computer keyboard to enter data in Warsaw, Poland.

In the wake of major whistleblower scandals—from the emergence of WikiLeaks to Edward Snowden's revealations about mass state surveillance operations conducted by the United States—concerns over increasing national and international surveillance is dominating the dialogue of several round-table talks at this year's U.N.-sponsored Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul.

At the heart of the debate: the rapid growth of companies selling powerful Internet surveillance software in a lucrative international market that remains largely unregulated and, some say, unregulable.

While UNESCO has proposed measures to protect journalists and bloggers from surveillance, the specter of an unregulated multi-billion dollar, privately-run surveillance software industry has been, for some, one of the most alarming concerns.

"It's sold all over the world ... and what we have to do—since journalists and bloggers and net citizens can be spied on by this kind of surveillance technology, which its extremely powerful—is try to regulate the export," said Gregoire Pouget of Reporters Without Borders.

Laura Tresca, Brazilian representative for the anti-censorship group Article 19, says Latin America is also becoming a big market for the new software industry.

"Brazil in the last four years spent nearly $200 million on software and technology for surveillance in Brazil. The excuse was the World Cup, but we have several evidence that this software was used to monitor activists to avoid protests," she said.

Scott Busby of the U.S. State Department says it is using current regulations used to control the weapons industry to try to monitor the distribution of surveillance software.

"It’s an issue of great concern to us, not only because some of the companies doing this are American companies," he said. "I would point out is being addressed under the VASNA arrangement, for the non-proliferation of dangerous items. It formally dealt with weapons and now looking at surveillance technologies."

But experts and activists say surveillance software is very different from weapons and that the industry will need specific regulations.

Silvia Grundmann, head of the media division of the Council of Europe, says European companies are among the leaders in the surveillance software industry.

She says finding the balance between human rights, the Internet and trade is invariably a time-consuming process.

"If you go into new regulation, new laws either on the domestic level or the international level—notably international level—it takes a long period time," she said. "And during this period of time journalists get surveilled and they might even lose their lives as a result of it. So I think time is crucial factor there, and my call is to use [less time-consuming] domestic laws."

Pouget agrees.

"There is a really new market, which is around $5 billion .... so more and more companies will invest in that, so we need to regulate," he said. "Otherwise, every state—democracy or not—will use this technology, and these technologies will [become] less and less expensive and more widely used."

For now, Pouget says, the prohibitive cost of the software means only nation-states can afford it.

But as the cost of the declines, large companies and even wealthy individuals may be able to purchase it, at which point the power of surveillance enjoyed by a few nation-states could finds its way to the mass market.