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European companies sold powerful surveillance technology to Egypt, report says

Privacy International investigation sheds light on Egyptian intelligence agency that operates in total secrecy

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European companies have been selling powerful surveillance technology to a secretive government intelligence agency in Egypt, according to an investigation from Privacy International, a London-based watchdog organization. The report, published Wednesday, sheds light on how Finnish, German, and Italian firms sold technology to the Technical Research Department (TDR), an Egyptian intelligence agency that has operated in complete secrecy.

The findings are the latest in a series of recent investigations into how Western technology companies are selling spyware to governments with notoriously poor human rights records. The European Parliament called for a ban on selling surveillance technology to Egypt in 2014, and the European Union has made efforts to more tightly regulate the export of such equipment. Following the release of today's report, Privacy International said it is calling on EU member states to verify that appropriate checks were implemented in the Egyptian deals, and that no other spyware has been exported to the country.

"We hope our report will spark a much needed debate."

"Surveilling its people, without any accountability to its people, severely undermines Egypt's claims to be a democratic country," said Eva Blum-Dumontet, research officer at Privacy International, in a statement. "We hope our report will spark a much needed debate and much needed surveillance reform in Egypt."

The report says that by 2011, when the Arab Spring revolution began in Egypt, Helsinki-based Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) provided the TDR with equipment that allowed for the interception of phone calls on mobile networks and fixed lines. The company also sold a network to TDR that would allow it to access the internet even in the case of a nationwide blackout, like the one the government ordered during the 2011 revolution.

The investigation implicates Hacking Team and Gamma International, as well — two European companies that have come under criticism for selling spyware to oppressive regimes across the world. The TRD is listed as a client of Italy-based Hacking Team, according to documents that were leaked in June 2015, and the agency was willing to spend more than $1 million to obtain malware that would allow it to remotely access computers and smartphones. Hacking Team's Remote Control System allows agencies to remotely access and monitor devices in real-time. FinFisher, a malware suite from the Germany-UK company Gamma International, offers similar capabilities. Recent research from Citizen Lab shows that the TDR was a FinFisher client, based on IP addresses affiliated with the agency.

"a grave human rights issue."

In a response to Privacy International, Hacking Team said its exports comply with existing regulations, and that the sales of its surveillance technology to Egypt were "entirely legal." Nokia said it divested its monitoring center business in 2009, and that no other sales are believed to have been executed since then. (NSN was a joint venture between Nokia and Siemens.)

In an email statement to The Verge, Nokia said it "strongly condemns" the allegations made against it in the Privacy International report, claiming that the watchdog organization "declined to discuss the report in more detail with us" prior to its publication. "Nokia actively takes steps to ensure that the technology we provide – legally and in good faith – will be used properly and lawfully," the company said. "We were the first telecommunications vendor to define and to implement a human rights due diligence process to mitigate the potential risk of product misuse."

Much is still unknown about the TDR. As Privacy International notes, it's still not clear when it was established, and its very existence has never been acknowledged by the Egyptian government. Its exact mandate is equally unclear, though it is believed to monitor other government officials on behalf of the president.

"Transparency in intelligence is necessary for a democratic society," Privacy International writes in the report. "The fact that a secret unit – unknown to the general public and apparently without any democratic oversight – can afford to spend millions of euros surveilling potentially every Egyptian citizen’s communications is a grave human rights issue that the Egyptian government must address."

Update February 24th 7:21AM ET: This article has been updated to include an additional statement from Nokia.