Edgar Su / Reuters

Why Internet Access Is a Human Right

What We Can Do to Protect It

In early May, the Congolese government inked a $5.6 million deal with Mer Group, an Israeli security consulting firm with deep links to the Israeli intelligence services. Mer sells surveillance tools to foreign security forces, and its signature product is a big data analytics system called the Strategic Actionable Intelligence Platform, which allows users to penetrate closed forums and groups, monitor their activities, and run clandestine investigations.

The Congolese government has not explained why it signed the deal. But it seems no coincidence that the country’s embattled president, Joseph Kabila, who is facing a political crisis at home, is suddenly interested in technology that he could easily use against dissidents. After Kabila overstayed his constitutionally mandated term, which expired last December, the country erupted in protest. Only following repeated demonstrations and heavy international pressure did he agree to hold national elections by the end of the year. But there is a strong suspicion that Kabila has no intention of giving up power, at least not without a fight. If that is the case, that fight will most likely involve dividing the opposition, persecuting opponents, and stifling dissent.

Mer’s suite of surveillance tools will certainly help in that regard. With human rights and political activists increasingly organizing online, an authoritarian leader gains a crucial advantage when he or she can spy on his or her opponents’ plans. If the state security forces in Congo can identify and break up the leadership circles of the opposition and civil society groups that will drive protests in Kinshasa, they can bolster Kabila’s chances of winning (or, what is more accurate, stealing) an election considerably.

What’s unnerving is that Mer is not unique. As the watchdog group Privacy International observed in a recent report on the surveillance industry, 27 Israeli companies and 122 U.S.-based companies offer surveillance and intrusion technology to a variety of clients. Although these sales are not exactly illegal, they are pushing ethical bounds. As a result, governments are starting European Commission, for example, has proposed controlling the export of surveillance technology on human rights grounds. What’s more, Freedom House’s report Freedom on the Net 2016 noted that two-thirds of all Internet users reside in countries where “criticism of the government, military, or ruling family are subject to censorship,” and that in the past year alone, authorities in 38 countries made arrests based solely on the content of social media posts. It is hard to say how many of these arrests resulted from technology peddled by companies such as Mer, but democracy groups estimate that 25 countries have implemented technical attacks against government critics and human rights groups using similar products.

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