Information & Communication Technology

Digital Dangers - Human Rights Challenges for Telecommunications Vendors

16 November 2014

In the second in a series of case studies as part of its “Digital Dangers” project, IHRB publishes a report examining how ICT companies understand and act on their responsibilities to prevent human rights abuses linked to the use of digital technology.

This case study focuses on the challenges facing network vendors (the companies that build and manage telecommunications networks) and analyses how network vendors can reduce the risk of misuse of telecommunications systems, in particular relating to lawful interception systems.

This paper draws on the experience of Swedish telecommunication company Ericsson's due diligence policies and explores challenges the company has faced in countries including Iran, Syria, Georgia and Belarus.

IHRB researcher Lucy Purdon spent 7 days at Ericsson headquarters in Stockholm to understand how the company sought to implement its commitment to respecting human rights in the context of building, selling and managing network systems. Key findings of the study include:

  • The critical importance of training operator personnel in correct use of the technology, including with respect to lawful interception systems, in addition to due diligence steps linked to the sale of the system.

  • The need for regulators to clarify the capabilities and the uses of technology that comprise lawful interception and also the limits of lawful surveillance.

  • Telecommunications companies face difficult dilemmas as States seek to change laws in order to expand interception capabilities. Operators face the option of either complying with new government demands or losing a contract and possibly their license to operate in some countries or territories. Although legal compliance in such cases is a matter for the operator, it impacts the vendor as well. Operators are often legally constrained from reporting on such issues, but some operators are starting to push back by disclosing more information that helps stakeholders understand the constraints placed on them by governments with regard to transparency.

IHRB gratefully acknowledges Ericsson's participation in the research for this report. The views expressed in the report are solely those of IHRB. Ericsson did not make any contribution, financial or otherwise, towards the production of the report.

The report is being published to coincide with an event convened by IHRB and Wilton Park on Privacy, Security and Surveillance: Tackling International Dilemmas and Dangers in the Digital Realm, which takes place from 17 to 19 November 2014.

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