Reporters Without Borders named five countries that regularly spy on journalists and dissidents, a practice the group contends is made possible with advanced technology from private companies.
The Paris-based group, which is an international advocate for press freedom, labeled Syria, China, Iran, Bahrain and Vietnam as "enemies of the internet" in a new report for their alleged increased online surveillance.
The group timed the release of its report with the World Day Against Cyber Censorship, and said that around 180 people are imprisoned worldwide for delivering news online.
"Surveillance in these countries targets dissidents and has grown in recent months," RSF said. "Cyberattacks and intrusions, including the use of malware against dissidents and their networks, are on the increase."
RSF charged the surveillance is made possible through equipment supplied by technology companies, including Gamma International, Trovicor, Hacking Team, Amesys and Blue Coat Systems. The companies should know their products could be misused if sold to certain countries, RSF said.
And if their products were sold by an intermediary, "their failure to keep track of the exports of their own software means they did not care if their technology was misused and did not care about the vulnerability of those who defend human rights," RSF said.
The group called for the introduction of controls around the export of surveillance tools. It praised the U.S. and European Union for banning the export of spying software to Iran and Syria, but said there should be a more harmonized approach.
RSF said the types of products the companies produce fall into two categories: equipment used for large-scale monitoring of Internet activity and spyware, used for targeting individuals.
Efforts to reach some of the companies were not immediately successful. Blue Coat, based in the U.S., has been repeatedly criticized since the company admitted in late 2011 that some of its Web-filtering products ended up in Syria despite a U.S. embargo.
RSF sent a set of questions to Blue Coat on March 7 regarding its sales policies. Blue Coat provided its answers to RSF to IDG News Service, saying it is conducting a review this year of its procedures "to review what further steps we can take to limit misuse of our products."
"We do not design our products, or condone their use, to suppress human rights," the company told RSF.
Gamma International, based in the U.K. and Germany, develops an interception tool intended for law enforcement called FinFisher. Gamma contested findings last year from researchers that FinFisher had been sold to Bahrain's government to target activists.
Trovicor, based in Munich, Germany, and Hacking Team, based in Milan, Italy, both make interception-related software. Amesys of France was found to have sold its EAGLE software, which analyzes Web traffic, to Libya during the Gaddafi regime, RSF said in its report.
RSF said that in general spying software can access hard disks, recover passwords and access messages on instant-messaging platforms as well as monitor VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) conversations.
The tools have legitimate purposes for fighting cybercrime, but when used by authoritarian regimes "can be turned into formidable censorship and surveillance weapons against human rights defenders and independent news providers."
"The lack of legislation and oversight of trade in these 'digital weapons' allows authoritarian governments to identify critical journalists and citizen journalists and go after them," RSF said.
RSF has published an "online survival kit" with tools and tips for activists and journalists to better safeguard their privacy.
Even RSF itself has proved a target. In January, the group's website was hacked and rigged to attack the computers of people visiting the site. Hackers often target websites that attract a particular type of visitor.