US and Israeli companies are selling highly invasive surveillance technologies to repressive regimes including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, a report has found.
Technology that enables the mass interception of telephone, mobile and internet communications has been adopted by Central Asian state intelligence agencies widely implicated in human rights abuses, according to an investigation by Privacy International, a UK-based privacy charity.
Monitoring centers with "mass surveillance capabilities" have been provided to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan by both the Israel branch of US-based Verint Systems and Israel-based NICE Systems.
The report raises concerns that the companies are selling Western technology on an unregulated surveillance market to repressive regimes that may use it to target activists, journalists and human rights campaigners.
Both Kazakhstan's KNB and Uzbekistan's SNB security agencies have been widely implicated in human rights abuses, and the monitoring centers allow the agencies unchecked, indiscriminate access to public telephone calls and internet activity.
Kazakhstan has a poor human rights record. According to the Human Rights Watch World Report 2014, torture remains commonplace and it has broad laws that allow for the suppression of free speech, dissent and freedom of assembly and religion.
Torture is also endemic in the criminal justice system in Uzbekistan, and freedom of expression is severely limited. Human Rights Watch describes its human rights record as "atrocious."
In 2013 Mamur Azimov, an Uzbek human rights lawyer, claimed that his client-lawyer mobile phone communications and Skype calls were intercepted by the government, which produced a transcript of Azimov's mobile phone conversations at the sentencing of one of his clients.
Verint Systems, headquartered in New York, describes itself as a "global leader in Actionable Intelligence solutions for customer engagement optimization, security intelligence, and fraud, risk and compliance." It generated $910m in revenue for the year ending January 31 2014, according to its website. NICE Systems describes itself as the worldwide leader of "intent-based solutions," and announced record revenues of $951 million for 2013.
Edin Omanovic, co-author of the report and Research Officer with Privacy International, told VICE News: "The brutal secret police of authoritarian states have been empowered with sweeping surveillance capabilities, aimed at putting the private lives of every individual within their reach. This is exactly the kind of nightmare scenario that becomes inevitable when you have an unaccountable industry operating under the radar."
The report also found that Kyrgyzstan "likely uses monitoring centers supplied by a Russian developer" and that a German company had marketed a monitoring center to Tajikistan in 2009, although it is not known if the sale went ahead. Both countries also have questionable human rights records.
Oliver Sprague, arms and policing expert for the human rights group Amnesty International, told VICE News: "This is precisely the sort of dodgy dealing we've been warning about; without any proper regulation surveillance equipment can freely be flogged to countries with appalling human rights records, like Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan.
"Amnesty thinks the trade in surveillance equipment should be regulated in a similar way to the arms trade, with tough laws that prevent the sale of this type of equipment to anyone who risks using them help commit atrocities. To people who fall foul of their government and are subject to surveillance, this equipment can be just as lethal."
A spokesperson for NICE told VICE News: "NICE provides Cyber and Intelligence solutions to Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) which organize and analyze data to reduce crime, prevent terrorism, and identify other security threats. NICE does not operate these systems, and has no access to the information gathered, or its sources, nor does the company determine the policies that govern their use. Rather, these tasks are performed by the LEAs themselves.
"NICE Systems sells its solutions only to nations with which the State of Israel allows trade relations. NICE is not in a position to provide additional comment on its relationships with actual or possible customers."
VICE News contacted Verint Systems but was told that nobody was available for comment.
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