The Government is licensing the sale of invasive surveillance equipment from the UK to repressive and dangerous states, The Independent can reveal.
New records show that the UK is sending equipment to countries including Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The tools can be used to intercept private phone messages and hack into devices – and appear to be being used in countries that the UK has condemned for human rights abuses.
Because of newly-implemented regulations, 2015 is the first year that surveillance technologies were included in the Government’s list of export licenses. As such, the new releases — found by charity Privacy International and seen by The Independent — are the first time that the huge amount of surveillance technologies that are sent from the UK around the world have been revealed.
The legal framework for use of such equipment is still unclear and untested in the UK, and is still being debated by parliament as part of the Investigatory Powers Bill. But those same technologies are being sold to countries "some of which lack basic rule of law", according to charity Privacy International.
The documents show that the UK has given export licenses to sell “intrusion software”, which allows its users to look in on electronic devices and control them, to countries around the world.
That intrusion software has been sold from the UK into countries including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, according to the documents.
Licenses have also been granted to sell IMSI catchers, which can be used to find mobile phones and intercept messages and calls that are sent through them. The Government has granted licenses worth millions of pounds to sell those tools to countries including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Licenses have also been granted for “IP monitoring systems”, which can be used to allow authorities and regimes to run nationwide monitoring and surveillance programs on a countries’ entire internet.
All of the equipment being sold falls into the category of “arms and controlled goods” that can only be exported out of the country with the approval of the UK Government. Data on what is being licensed for export is collected by the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and published online.
The revelation comes as David Cameron has refused to launch an inquiry into British arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The arms exports to the country are "carefully controlled", Mr Cameron claimed at Prime Minister's Questions.
Campaigners have called on authorities to be more stringent in the tests that are applied when granting the licenses.
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
In October 2014, three lawyers, Dr Abdulrahman al-Subaihi, Bander al-Nogaithan and Abdulrahman al-Rumaih , were sentenced to up to eight years in prison for using Twitter to criticize the Ministry of Justice.
In March 2015, Yemen’s Sunni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was forced into exile after a Shia-led insurgency. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition has responded with air strikes in order to reinstate Mr Hadi. It has since been accused of committing war crimes in the country.
Women who supported the Women2Drive campaign, launched in 2011 to challenge the ban on women driving vehicles, faced harassment and intimidation by the authorities. The government warned that women drivers would face arrest.
Members of the Kingdom’s Shia minority, most of whom live in the oil-rich Eastern Province, continue to face discrimination that limits their access to government services and employment. Activists have received death sentences or long prison terms for their alleged participation in protests in 2011 and 2012.
All public gatherings are prohibited under an order issued by the Interior Ministry in 2011. Those defy the ban face arrest, prosecution and imprisonment on charges such as “inciting people against the authorities”.
In March 2014, the Interior Ministry stated that authorities had deported over 370,000 foreign migrants and that 18,000 others were in detention. Thousands of workers were returned to Somalia and other states where they were at risk of human rights abuses, with large numbers also returned to Yemen, in order to open more jobs to Saudi Arabians. Many migrants reported that prior to their deportation they had been packed into overcrowded makeshift detention facilities where they received little food and water and were abused by guards.
The Saudi Arabian authorities continue to deny access to independent human rights organisations like Amnesty International, and they have been known to take punitive action, including through the courts, against activists and family members of victims who contact Amnesty.
Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for using his liberal blog to criticise Saudi Arabia’s clerics. He has already received 50 lashes, which have reportedly left him in poor health.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Dawood al-Marhoon was arrested aged 17 for participating in an anti-government protest. After refusing to spy on his fellow protestors, he was tortured and forced to sign a blank document that would later contain his ‘confession’. At Dawood’s trial, the prosecution requested death by crucifixion while refusing him a lawyer.
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 aged either 16 or 17 for participating in protests during the Arab spring. His sentence includes beheading and crucifixion. The international community has spoken out against the punishment and has called on Saudi Arabia to stop. He is the nephew of a prominent government dissident.
“To its credit, the British system is one of the more transparent in the EU, and the government has already taken some steps to better regulate the trade,” said Edin Omanovic, a research officer at Privacy International. “Put simply however, similar to UK policy on arms exports, what’s needed is that human rights considerations take precedence over financial incentives and security relationships.”
British authorities’ arguments around surveillance techniques often contrast UK usage with that in foreign, authoritarian regimes. But the new releases show that many of those same tools are being sold into those same countries.
“These categories of surveillance technology cover some of the most advanced and intrusive systems on the market,” said Mr Omanovic. “These would allow some of the most authoritarian countries in the world to carry out mass, suspicion-less surveillance and gain unlimited access to anyone’s private communications and devices.
“Such surveillance technology can be used to clamp down on dissent through the monitoring of activists, journalists and opposition groups, as well as allow agencies to identify and target individuals and carry out serious human rights abuses, including arbitrary killings and torture.”