Surveillance in Syria: European firms may be aiding and abetting crimes against humanity

Syria – Surveillance technology – Corporate responsibility

The Syrian intelligence services, especially the military intelligence, have been collecting without cause information about political opponents, members of the opposition and human rights activists. Numerous reports from Syria indicate that the government of Bashar al-Assad uses the intercepted data in part to identify, arrest and interrogate critics. Spying in this case goes hand in hand with torture and forced confessions.

According to information from Syria, software from corporations like German firm Utimaco and their French and Italian partner firms Qosmos SA and Area SpA may have played a role in the surveillance. Legal proceedings were initiated in France and in Italy but to do date there have been no transnational investigations.

In order to close this gap, ECCHR worked with two Syrians to submit in January 2018 a criminal complaint to the German Federal Public Prosecutor (Generalbundesanwalt, GBA) in Karlsruhe against high-ranking employees of the Syrian military intelligence service, Syrian Telecom as well as Utimaco. The crimes alleged: aiding and abetting crimes against humanity and war crimes.


According to ECCHR’s information, Utimaco supported a centralized surveillance system run by Syrian Telecom – even as late as 2011 when protests against Assad’s government started. Syrian Telecom is close to the government and apparently controlled by Syrian intelligence. Utimaco partnered for this work with Italian company Area SpA and Qosmos SA from France.

According to various sources, high-ranking employees from Syrian Telecom and members of the military intelligence service passed the secretly collected information to the repressive Syrian regime. The regime apparatus used the information to carry out intimidation, abuse, torture and the killings of human rights activists and oppositionists.


The case of Utimaco/Syria is emblematic of how complex export paths for dual use products, like surveillance software, can be obstacles to efficient controls and prosecution within the EU. While economic actors operate globally, the judiciary is limited to national investigations.

The Federal Public Prosecutor did not take up investigations against Utimaco but added the information from the criminal complaint to the structural investigation underway, on the basis of the German Code of Crimes under International Law, into crimes committed in Syria.

In 2014, criminal proceedings were opened in France against Qosmos for aiding and abetting torture and crimes against humanity. In Italy, investigations were initiated against Area SpA in connection with breaches of foreign trade law.

glossary (4)


German Federal Public Prosecutor

The Office of the German Federal Public Prosecutor (Generalbundesanwaltschaft, GBA) is Germany’s highest prosecutory authority. The GBA is responsible for prosecutions in serious cases relating to crimes against international law and crimes concerning state security.

Topics (6)


Shrinking spaces and authoritarianism

Whenever states and corporations stifle critical voices and crackdown on political dissent – whether in the streets, on social media, or in the courtroom – they shrink civic space necessary for a democratic society based on human rights to thrive.

Overly broad “counter-terrorism” frameworks, digital surveillance targeting journalists and activists, or the increasing criminalization of solidarity with refugees are only some examples of how civil society is targeted increasingly all over the world. Such authoritarian policies and practices occur in democracies and dictatorships alike.

In the last decade, worldwide intersectional emergencies such as the climate crisis, rising far-right populism and the pandemic have posed collective challenges that impact everyone, even if unequally, no matter where in the world we live. However, civil society is constantly resisting to (re)claim its space. 

ECCHR’s work is only possible through in collaboration and solidarity with civil society actors around the globe. Many of our partners – be it in Mexico, The Gambia or Italy – face varying degrees and types of pressure, restrictions and even physical attacks, intended to repress their activities, expression and ability to organize. The Shrinking spaces and authoritarianism project hopes to support them in efforts to cope, resist, and innovate new ways to strengthen progressive civic power. Through legal and discursive interventions, ECCHR will draw attention not only to how civil society space is under attack in different contexts, but also to how it is being defended and by whom.


Discover our Living Open Archive