Privacy International (PI), a U.K.-based privacy watchdog, has released a searchable database on over 500 surveillance companies across the world, including their brochures and export data. The Surveillance Industry Index, compiled using publicly available data and export licensing records, can be queried using the companies’ name, office locations, headquarters and the type of surveillance products they sell.
Over 120 of the 526 companies on the database are based in the U.S., while 104 are located in the United Kingdom. France and Germany are also represented prominently in the list, each with more than 40 companies.
“State surveillance is one of the most important and polarizing issues of our time, yet the secrecy around it means it's a debate lacking reliable facts,” Edin Omanovic, a research officer at Privacy International, told the Verge. “Understanding the role of the surveillance industry, and how these technologies are traded and used across the world, is crucial to not only understanding this debate, but also fostering accountability and the development of comprehensive safeguards and effective policy.”
Included in the database is a company named Gamma International, which has, in the past, come under fire for selling surveillance software to the governments in Bahrain and Ethiopia, who allegedly used them to target activists and dissidents in exile. FinFisher — the surveillance software the company manufactures — has previously been discovered in use in 25 countries, including the United States.
Although the sale of such surveillance software and equipment is not illegal, per se, activists have expressed concerns over the fact that the industry is largely unregulated, shrouded in secrecy and thus immune to any oversight.
“There is a culture of impunity permeating across the private surveillance market, given that there are no strict export controls on the sale of this technology, as there are on the sale of conventional weapons,” Matthew Rice, research consultant with Privacy International, told the Guardian in 2013, when the first iteration of the Surveillance Industry Index was launched. “This market profits off the suffering of people around the world, yet it lacks any sort of effective oversight or accountability.”
Privacy International hopes that the index will serve as an important tool for journalists, activists and human rights campaigners, and trigger greater public debate about the ethics and legality of such surveillance techniques.
“In non-democratic and authoritarian systems, the power gained from the use of surveillance technologies can undermine democratic development and lead to serious human rights abuses,” Privacy International reportedly said. “Opposition activists, human rights defenders, and journalists have been placed under intrusive government surveillance and individuals have had their communications read to them during torture.”