Reaping nearly $100 million in sales over five years, the British government provided spyware, wiretaps and other telecom interception tools to 17 countries, many with a track record of targeting dissent and undemocratic behaviour.
The UK has sold a range of surveillance technologies to 17 governments, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, The Independent reported.
Records show that the British government provided wiretaps, spyware and other telecommunications interception equipment that can be used to spy on dissidents.
Over the past five years, UK ministers have signed off on more than $95 million in sales to countries ranked “not free” by Freedom House, despite rules against exporting security goods to countries that might use them for internal repression.
China and Bahrain were among the list of recipients. The UAE was the largest recipient of licenses, totaling $14.5 million alone since 2015.
The Philippines, under the Rodrigo Duarte government which has regularly carried out extrajudicial killings, was also sold UK spy gear.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government received a £2 million shipment of “telecommunications interception equipment” approved last year despite ongoing pro-democracy protests.
Labour’s shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry told The Independent: “The government has a legal and moral duty to ensure exports from Britain are not used by other countries for the purposes of internal repression, and that risk should clearly be at the forefront of their mind when those countries have a track record of harassing political opponents and undermining democratic freedoms, and when the equipment concerned is ripe to be abused in that way.”
Oliver Feeley-Sprague, Amnesty International’s UK programme director for military, security and police affairs, told The Independent that the UK government was becoming “notorious” for their “faulty decision-making” by failing to take the necessary risk assessments before selling arms, spyware and other goods to foreign countries.
Feeley-Sprague said that “root-and-branch overhaul” of the UK’s arms and security export system is necessary and that “a far more coherent and comprehensive system of reporting” needs to be put in place.
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade said the sale of the spying equipment raised “serious questions and concerns” and that the British government’s actions were “symptomatic of a dangerous and hypocritical foreign policy that has consistently prioritised arms exports over human rights.”
Last week it was confirmed that Britain will resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia, a lucrative market for British arms manufacturers.
As Riyadh drags on its war in Yemen, it's a move that the charity War Child said was “tantamount to signing the death warrants of thousands of children in the Middle East.”
Private snooping industry
According to Moody’s, the industry for the so-called “lawful intercept” technology is said to be worth $12 billion, and a market that is growing at a 25 percent annual rate.
While companies working in the sector say the technology is utilised to target criminal activity and terrorism and has resulted in countless lives saved, human rights campaigners have pointed to how authoritarian regimes can wield the technology against its own citizens.
UK companies in particular have been active in the sector.
Britain’s long running expertise in signals equipment and the presence of defence and security giants like BAE Systems – which develops its own lawful intercept tool, DataBridge – and Cobham gives it an edge in the market when it comes to vending surveillance technologies.
Presently, the UK issues export licenses for dual use goods and technology under the Wassenaar Agreement, with rules for mobile phone and internet tracking technology added to the list in 2012. The government also promotes exports abroad through the UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation.
Since 2008, BAE Systems has spent more than $1 billion on procuring surveillance and cyber-security businesses. In 2011, BAE acquired Danish internet and phone monitoring company ETI for £137 million. ETI had provided the Tunisian government with monitoring technology prior to the 2011 uprising and was the main contractor and systems integrator for a surveillance project in Saudi Arabia.
The UK government made export licensing data publicly available from 2015. Records showed that 98 permanent and temporary licenses were granted in the period 1 January – 31 December 2015 for phone monitoring technology, including to Bangladesh, Egypt, Israel, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
A license worth over $8 million was issued by the UK government in July 2015 for internet monitoring technology to the UAE.
There are a number of documented instances of online surveillance used to track dissidents in the UAE, and how the Emirati government has purchased spyware and employed foreign hackers in systematic campaigns to target journalists and activists.
In December, it was reported that the UAE was utilising the mobile messaging and VOIP application ‘ToTok’ to track its users’ communications and locations. The application was found to be affiliated with DarkMatter, an Abu Dhabi cyber-intelligence firm.
The $1 billion-valued NSO Group has been at the centre of controversial surveillance technologies offered by the Israeli firm to the Saudi and Emirati governments, and its spyware has been implicated in hacks targeting journalists, dissidents and activists across the world.