Obama authorizes sanctions against surveillance tech in Syria, Iran

The U.S. government will block payments to people and companies that give monitoring tech to the two countries

U.S. President Barack Obama has signed an executive order allowing the U.S. government to block the sale of any technology used to track or monitor dissidents in Syria and Iran by the governments there.

The new order, which went into effect Monday, allows the U.S. government to block the sale of IT equipment "likely to be used to facilitate computer or network disruption, monitoring, or tracking that could assist in or enable serious human rights abuses" by the governments of Iran and Syria.

The U.S. government must take new steps to stop the "unspeakable violence" against the citizens of Syria and the human rights abuses in Iran and other countries, Obama said Monday, during a speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. "National sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your own people," he said.

Critics say Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has authorized the army there to use force against an uprising beginning in early 2011. The United Nations estimates that more than 11,000 people have died in the fighting.

The government of Iran has also used imported surveillance technologies to track dissidents there, critics say.

Obama's executive order allows the U.S. government to block payments to any people or companies that operate surveillance and network disruption equipment for the governments of Iran and Syria or sold them that type of equipment.

"These technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not repress them," Obama said.

The executive order is "one more step" in an effort to end the al-Assad regime, he said.

Human rights abuses in Iran and Syria "threaten the national security and foreign policy of the United States," Obama wrote in the order. "The Governments of Iran and Syria are endeavoring to rapidly upgrade their technological ability to conduct such activities."

Earlier this month, Reuters reported that China's ZTE had agreed to sell embargoed computer equipment from U.S. companies to Iran, but later backed down.

Obama, during his speech, announced several new initiatives focused on preventing genocide and other atrocities. The U.S. Agency for International Development will solicit new technologies that expose human rights violations, he said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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