Future Tense

French Company That Sold Spy Tech to Libya Faces Judicial Inquiry Amid New Allegations

In the years before the Arab Spring, Muammar Qaddafi’s Libyan regime installed a Western-made mass surveillance system used to spy on dissidents, journalists, activists, and political opponents. Eight months after the death of Qaddafi at the hands of rebels, the French company that sold the dictator the technology is facing a judicial probe for complicity in human rights abuses—amid fresh claims that it supplied the same monitoring systems to Morocco and Qatar.

Last August, while conflict in Libya was still raging and Qaddafi on the run, Wall Street Journal reporters visited a ransacked intelligence agency office in Tripoli. They discovered an “Eagle” monitoring center purchased from Amesys, a unit of the French technology firm Bull, capable of intercepting countrywide communications including email, Facebook, and instant messenger conversations.

Amesys admitted selling the technology to Libya but said it had broken no laws. The revelation caused outrage in France, with politicians calling for a parliamentary inquiry into any role the French government might have played in helping set up the 2007 deal, reportedly worth more than $25 million. In March, Bull announced it would be selling off “activities of its subsidiary, Amesys, relating to the Eagle software system”—but the company still finds itself unable to escape controversy.

A Paris court—Le Tribunal de Grande Instance—opened a judicial inquiry into Amesys late last month after two human rights groups filed a criminal complaint. The inquiry, being carried out by a unit that specializes in war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, will consider whether the company played a role in helping to facilitate torture of dissidents.

Many companies selling mass monitoring or censorship equipment, including Amesys, have argued that they do not have responsibility for how their tools are used once sold, denying they are complicit in any human rights abuses that may be committed with the help of their technology. The Paris investigation could be an opportunity to reassess corporate liability in such cases—and could send out a warning to other firms that they can and will be held to account if they choose to deal with despots.

Bull has tried to clean up its image and probably hopes that the inquiry draws to an end the bad publicity generated by Amesys. But that looks highly unlikely. In recent months, for instance, fresh details have emerged about Amesys’ alleged role in other countries with poor human rights records in the Middle East and North Africa. According to an investigation by French weekly Le Canard Enchaîné, the Amesys Eagle mass-monitoring system was sold as part of deals with Morocco and Qatar. Both were purportedly made before Bull sold off activities related to the Eagle technology and were given bizarre codenames: “Project Popcorn” (Morocco) and “Finger” (Qatar).

Questions have also surfaced about whether the surveillance technology is actively being used to eavesdrop on communications within Europe. On Saturday French publication Reflets, which has reported extensively on Amesys, claimed there is an Eagle monitoring system with the codename “EAGDLP1101” operational in France and called for the country’s new president, François Hollande, to explain what for. So far, Reflets writes, Hollande remains silent.