Central Asia: Report Shines Light on State Surveillance Practices
Western and Russian companies are helping Central Asian governments build and maintain vast surveillance networks that facilitate indiscriminate monitoring of all types of communication, according to a report released November 20 by a watchdog organization. Such sales of technology appear to violate international law and obligate Western governments to take action to tighten export controls of surveillance-related trade, the report adds.
The report, titled Private Interests: Monitoring Central Asia, is the product of a year-long investigation carried out by the watchdog group Privacy International. It shows how local and foreign communications service providers, including telecoms and Internet-related companies, are complicit in helping governments carry out authoritarian-style snooping. It also provides exhaustive documentation on the types of spyware and technical assistance that firms based in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and Israel are supplying to Central Asian states.
While focusing on the surveillance architecture of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the report also provides overviews of practices in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
"Some countries are equipped with sophisticated surveillance capabilities that allow the monitoring of communications on a mass scale,” the report stated. “These surveillance capabilities are centralized and accessed by security agencies in monitoring centers, located across the region, allowing agents to intercept, decode and analyze the private communications of thousands of people simultaneously.”
In testimonials obtained from activists and journalists in Central Asia, the Privacy International report shows how mass-scale surveillance is used by governments in the region “to clamp down on dissent and to reinforce their political control.”
While there may be genuine security reasons for governments to monitor the communications of citizens, such monitoring needs to take place within a well-defined legal framework, the report contends. Such frameworks are lacking in Central Asian states, enabling widespread abuse of ongoing surveillance operations.
“State surveillance can only legitimately be exercised where the means and ends of surveillance are prescribed by law,” the report says. “Surveillance must be conducted within a robust legislative framework that stipulates the appropriate system of safeguards and oversight.”
The arbitrary nature of surveillance in Central Asian states constitutes a violation of international law, the report suggests. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, it notes, have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which obligates signatories to uphold the right to privacy.
“It is well recognized under international law that respect for the right to privacy requires that states adopt domestic legislation that articulates clearly … the circumstances under which surveillance can be conducted,” the report says. It goes on to highlight “significant gaps” in the legislative frameworks of Central Asian states that seem to create space for security services to act “unconstrained by law or independent accountability mechanism.”
The lack of certainty surrounding legal safeguards in Central Asia should prompt Western governments to impose more stringent export controls on surveillance-related technology transfers, the report urges. Specifically, the report advocates for a ban on surveillance-related technology exports, “if the beneficial end-user cannot be clearly identified, or if they have a documented record of human rights abuse that is likely to be enabled by the [to-be-exported] product.”
Justin Burke is Eurasianet's publisher.