News Brief

The British role in exporting spyware

As the United Kingdom lurches towards Brexit, British politicians have promised a new era of trade deals which will make an economic success of the U.K.’s long planned departure from the European Union. Prime Minister Theresa May has called for a “truly global Britain”; the International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has described Britain as “open for business”.

In recent years, the defense industry has been an aggressive forerunner of the U.K.’s export ambitions. U.K. arms manufacturers have helped Saudi Arabia prosecute the war in Yemen and are regular exhibitors at defense shows in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere. In the last decade, the Middle East and North African region (MENA) has accounted for over 50 per cent of all U.K. defense sales by value.

New figures obtained by human rights groups have raised concerns that British defense technology is being used by authoritarian regimes around the world to target their opponents. According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, which produced the analysis, in the years since 2015 the U.K. has licensed the sale of $99 million of telecommunications hacking equipment to dozens of countries. In a number of cases, the technology, which included spyware and surveillance tools, was sold to countries which have launched human rights crackdowns, including the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Turkey.

CAAT’s report reveals that the technology sold may have included international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) catchers, used to wiretap telephone conversations. According to the law firm Leigh Day which represents Global Justice Now, the sale of IMSI catchers to the Philippines came after its president, Rodrigo Duterte, said the state had wiretapped at least two politicians, one of whom was subsequently killed alongside 14 other people, in a raid on his home.

Leigh Day wrote to the British Department for International Trade seeking information about how the exported surveillance equipment is being used abroad by foreign governments. In its letter to the department, the firm highlighted concerns that similar tools may have been exported to Egypt, where the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has widened a crackdown on journalists, bloggers and activists.

In a letter replying to Leigh Day, Liam Fox said export licenses were not issued without serious consideration to human rights abuses. “We also naturally consider the importing state’s attitudes towards international human rights law more widely, and whether there is a direct or causal link between the use of the equipment that might go beyond the specific concerns that you have raised of the repression of dissent and those exercising the right to freedom of expression,” he wrote.