British arms giant BAE Systems has reportedly made huge sales of sophisticated surveillance technology to repressive regimes across the Middle East, which could be used to threaten the UK’s own national security.
The powerful equipment, which has been sold by BAE to countries including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Algeria, could be used to read encrypted messages anywhere in the world, according to the BBC, which uncovered the sales.
Sources said that mass surveillance tools like the ones BAE sold were used by authoritarian governments to aid a brutal crackdown on dissent after the Arab Spring in 2011. Thousands of activists and civilians have disappeared, been detained without trial and killed since the wave of protests swept across the region.
An investigation by the BBC and the Danish newspaper Dagbladet Information uncovered a system known as Evident, made by surveillance specialists, ETI in Norresundby, Denmark. BAE bought ETI, and later sold the technology those counties in the Middle East.
A former ETI employee told the BBC how powerful the system was: “You'd be able to intercept any internet traffic,” he said. “If you wanted to do a whole country, you could”.
“You could pin-point people's location based on cellular data. You could follow people around. They were quite far ahead with voice recognition. They were capable of decrypting stuff as well.“
A former Tunisian intelligence official who operated Evident for the country's veteran leader, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, said operatives simply had to input someone’s name and the system would bring up “all the sites, blogs, social networks related to that user”.
The technology was used to track online conversations during the Arab Spring and, over the following years, BAE sold it across the Middle East, including to regimes accused of a string human rights abuses.
According to documents obtained by the BBC, BAE sold the equipment to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Morocco and Algeria.
Saudi Arabia continues to arbitrarily arrest, try, and convict peaceful dissidents, according to Human Rights Watch. Dozens of human rights defenders and activists are serving long prison sentences for criticising authorities or advocating political and rights reforms, and 154 citizens were executed in 2016 alone, the organisation says.
In Algeria, despite promises since 2011 to introduce human rights reforms, authorities curtail free speech and the rights to freedom of association, assembly, and peaceful protest. They also arbitrarily arrest and prosecute political and trade union activists.
Last year, Qatari authorities closed down an independent news website and they have detained and interrogated journalists who attempted to report on the conditions of migrant living conditions.
The findings will reignite debate over where Britain sells its weapons. The UK became the second biggest arms dealer in the world last year, behind the US, according to the Government's own figures.
Between 2010 and September last year, Britain sold arms to 39 of the 51 countries ranked “not free” on the Freedom House “Freedom in the world” report, and 22 of the 30 countries on the UK Government’s own human rights watch list.
Two-thirds of UK weapons over this period were sold to Middle Eastern countries, where instability has fed into increased risk of terror threats to Britain and across the West.
The revelations also raise questions over the UK’s own national security. The equipment BAE sold reportedly allows decrypting of secure messages, meaning that even highly sensitive exchanges could potentially be intercepted.
In one 2015 exchange unearthed by the BBC’s investigation, officials at the UK export authority told Danish officials they would deny the sale of the Evident software to the UAE because of “Category 5 concerns”. Category 5 relates to national security. Despite the concerns, Denmark approved the sale.
BAE told the BBC it was against company policy to comment on specific contracts.
A spokesperson said: “BAE systems works for a number of organisations around the world within the regulatory framework of all relevant countries and within our responsible trading principles”.
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