By Dewi Morris | Political Editor
Over the past five years, the UK has sold more than £75m worth of spyware to 17 regimes rated “not free” by the NGO Freedom House.
UK firms have been selling spyware to countries known to repress freedoms using such technology.
The spyware technology sold from the UK to countries, such as Egypt and Oman, allow for the interception of mobile phones and other devices. It can also keep a record of the IMSI number (international mobile subscriber identity), meaning the user can be targeted, and more advanced spy methods can proceed.
In 2019, during the pro-democracy protests across Hong Kong, the UK granted licenses to firms for the sale of such technologies to Hong Kong. These technologies can be used effectively to target terrorist groups and improve security for example, however, they can also effectively and secretly target civilians.
UK spyware sales to Hong Kong are despite the fact the UK halted sales of tear gas to Hong Kong’s police force after concerns about police brutality during the protests.
The export of spyware must be approved by the UK’s Department for International Trade. And despite laws stating that UK firms must not sell spyware to countries considered capable of using them for internal repression, this has not been the case for 17 repressive countries who bought spyware from UK firms since 2015.
The export of interception technology to Saudi Arabia was authorized by the UK Government during the first three months of 2020, despite the fact that the Riyadh regime is known to have severely clamped down on freedom of speech, especially online.
Sofia Kaltenbrunner, from the International Campaign for Freedom in the United Arab Emirites claims;
“The Emirati authorities have sought to utilize such technology to systematically crush freedom of speech and suppress peaceful dissenting voices.”
The UK as a global exporter and human rights concerns
Oliver Feeley-Sprague, Amnesty International’s programme director for military, security and police affairs, told the Independent that the UK is now becoming “notourious” for failing to carry out risk assessments before granting licenses for trade of spyware abroad.
Mr Feely-Sprague questioned UK foreign policy saying;
“It’s just not clear that the UK is undertaking proper risk assessments when selling this equipment, and it’s not clear whether UK officials are making any effort to track how the equipment is used in one, two or three years time.”
Only last month it was announced that the UK will be resuming arms export to Saudi Arabia who had breached international humanitarian law in Yemen.
Andrew Smith from the group, Campaign Against Arms Trade commented on the severity of the UK’s actions,
“Policing in the UK and around the world is becoming even more militarised, and surveillance is becoming even more intrusive. For companies and arms-dealing governments like the UK to be promoting and selling this kind of equipment is extremely irresponsible and reckless. It could fuel abuses for years to come.”
The NSO Group Technology controversy
Earlier this year the UK hosted the surveillance company NSO Group Technology in the Home Office’s surveillance and policing event.
The annual event took place in March and attracted international delegations from countries criticised for their human rights records including from Egypt and Qatar, to browse commercial stalls selling spyware and crowd-control equipment.
The Israeli company NSO, who was at the UK held event, had faced allegations that its technologies are being used to target citizens and activists. The messaging app, WhatsApp, is suing NSO for hacking 1,400 users between April and May 2019.
There are at least three cases of NSO technologies being used to spy on UK citizens including reporters and activists.
One prominent case involves the firm’s malware being used by Saudi Arabia to target London-based Ghanem Almasarir, who has openly criticised the Saudi royal family. Almasarir is now suing Saudi Arabia over the hack.
His lawyer claims;
“Unless the government is prepared to take a stand and make it clear that it is inappropriate for such software to be sold to oppressive regimes then we are nothing short of colluding with those very regimes in their oppression of dissidents.”
A worrying global pattern
In a world where spyware and interceptive technologies are becoming increasingly sophisticated, news such as Russian intervention in the UK, as revealed by the Russia report, and more recently Belarus’ allegedly rigged election are becoming more common.
Last month an investigation by the Guardian and El País uncovered that the mobiles of Roger Torrent, speaker of the Catalan parliament, and two other Catalan independence activists, Jordi Domingo and Anna Gabriel, were hacked by the Spanish government.
The spyware was able to target WhatsApp messages, text messages, emails and photographs as well as switching on the mobile’s camera and microphone.
This worrying pattern is a grave concern for democracy worldwide.