Members of the Saudi special police unit perform during a parade
Members of the Saudi special police unit perform during a parade

Government has been allowing UK firms to sell invasive spying equipment to countries including Saudi Arabia, records show

The licenses include tools that can listen in on an entire country's internet network, and others that can pinpoint and tune into phone calls

Andrew Griffin
Wednesday 27 January 2016 14:08

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.

“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.

Cameron on arms trading with Saudi Arabia.mp4

“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.”

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