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Updated and amended 18 June

Following allegations in the Wall Street Journal last June, Nokia-Siemens Networks has admitted that it sold surveillance technology to Iranian mobile phone operators. The technology was used by the regime in Tehran to track down dissidents during the widespread protests that followed last year’s contested re-election of Mahmud Ahmadinejad. At least 36 people were killed in a brutal crackdown by the authorities.

While Nokia’s admission is welcome, the EU and the USA also shoulder some responsibility. As Gus Hosein of Privacy International has pointed out, “everyone got angry at Nokia, while forgetting that they had built those [surveillance capacities because of] demands from our own governments”.

The demands in question, on the “lawful interception of telecommunications”, were drawn-up by the FBI and European governments in the early 1990s and transposed into EU law, placing an obligation on all telecommunications service providers to give law enforcement agencies real-time surveillance capabilities. The result is that all mobile phone networks can easily be fitted with this kind of “backdoor”.

At a hearing in the European Parliament, Barry French, head of marketing and corporate affairs with Nokia-Siemens Networks, told MEPs that the company found itself “in a tricky situation” and that it “needed their help” to “navigate in these challenging times”. Reporters without borders duly called for some kind of “voluntary code of conduct” addressing the supply of surveillance equipment to repressive regimes.

In an era in which the Homeland Security sector is growing so rapidly as to begin to rival the arms industry, this is spectacularly unambitious. As the recent Finmeccanica deal with Libya shows, European defence and security contractors are only to happy to supply repressive regimes with everything from border control and surveillance equipment, detention centres to UAVs.

What is needed is a stringent regulatory regime recognising that a whole host of new security technologies and equipment can result in gross human violations, and one that restricts their supply accordingly. Outlawing the international trade of policing and security equipment designed for torture and ill-treatment is a good start, but it falls far short of what is needed.

Unfortunately the EU is so preoccupied with developing a competitive homeland security industry that can compete in the global marketplace, it has paid no attention whatsoever as to where these products end up.