Concern is growing over the export of surveillance equipment which can track the movements of anyone carrying a cellphone - from town to town and even into other countries.  Such technologies are freely on sale not only to oppressive regimes, but also to criminal gangs, according to a report by the Washington Post.

Third-party surveillance apps are, of course, widely available which allow suspicious spouses and more nefarious individuals to track the owner of a phone by surreptitiously installing and hiding such an app. Such 'domestic spyware' is often involved in domestic violence cases.

The technology used by repressive regimes is much higher-level surveillance: specifically, the governments, gangs and other individuals monitor telecoms networks for their location records.

Surveillance systems map people for weeks

“Surveillance systems are secretly collecting these records to map people’s travels over days, weeks or longer, according to company marketing documents and experts in surveillance technology,” the Washington Post reports.

The use of such equipment is highlighted in a report, Big Brother Inc, by Privacy International, which claims that the surveillance industry has grown to be worth $5 billion per year, and that export control regulations have not kept pace with developments in such technology.

Capabilities of surveillance have grown hugely

“The capabilities of surveillance technology have grown hugely in the past decade – in the hands of a repressive regime, this equipment eradicates free speech, quashes dissent and places dissidents at the mercy of ruling powers as effectively as guns and bombs, if not more so,” Privacy International says in its report.

Mark James, security specialist at ESET, says there is a broader issue about the ownership of the data generated by such devices, and in particular the rights of the end user.

“The main concern here is the lack of international laws to protect the end user,” says James. “Without a global policy in place there will always be some countries that can be used to track people’s locations and activity.”

“With users now requiring the latest technology advancements in their mobile devices which include GPS location, mobile internet and the ability to be contacted wherever they are, it is often overlooked that this technology is two-way.

“Even if in your contract there were to be a paragraph stating that you can be monitored whenever and wherever, the likelihood of you reading it and acknowledging it exists is remote, and let’s be honest would you refuse to have the phone if this were made clear to you when you purchased it in the first place? I honestly think not.”

“This type of surveillance has been around for a while and it’s not going anywhere, all we can do is put measures in place for an independent organization to monitor its use and work harder to have an international  agreement in place to limit where this data ends up.”

Privacy International is now campaigning for more regulation of the surveillance industry, and in particular to restrict the sale of such technologies to repressive regimes. The group points to some limited successes, such as the EU Parliament’s resolution calling for stricter oversight of surveillance technology exports, and President Obama’s  executive order to prevent such exports to Syria and Iran.

The group says, “Export control regulations have not kept pace with this development, nor have companies taken it upon themselves to vet the governments to whom they sell their technology. The situation has now reached a crisis point: countries must enact strict export controls now, or be guilty of a staggering and continued hypocrisy with regard to global human rights.”