A major privacy group is threatening to take the UK government to court over its failure to prevent British surveillance technology from being exported to countries in the grip of tyrannical regimes.
Privacy International (PI) has commissioned lawyers to write to the UK Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable, stating that human rights defenders, political dissidents and other vulnerable groups are being targeted by increasingly sophisticated state surveillance – much of it supplied by British companies.
Secret police in three continents are currently using British technology to hack into computers and mobile devices, commandeer the cameras and microphones for surveillance, monitor all email, instant messenger and voice call activity, and transform mobile phones into location tracking devices.
Text messages and call records retrieved in this way have subsequently been presented to victims during torturous interrogations, the letter states.
The government has reportedly failed to take any concrete steps to combat the issue, even though the use of British technologies by dictators and repressive regimes in the developing world has been known about since April 2011.
PI points to a document from Hampshire-based Gamma International discovered in the ransacked headquarters of Mubarak's secret police service, offering to provide its Finfisher software, which can be used to hack into email accounts and take control of computers.
The incident was reported in the Guardian newspaper, but Gamma International denied that it had supplied any of its Finfisher suite of products or related training to the Egyptian government.
It was also revealed in November 2011 that Kingston-based Creativity Software had sold location-tracking systems to Iran. The company said at the time that any connection implied between its commercial location-based services and possible human rights abuses were “erroneous”.
“British companies have been peddling their wares to repressive regimes for years now. Publicly condemning the abuses of dictators like Al-Assad while turning a blind eye to the fact that British technologies may be facilitating these abuses is the worst kind of hypocrisy,” said Eric King, Head of Research at Privacy International
Under the Export Control Act 2002, the British government has the power to restrict exports of goods or technical assistance capable of facilitating internal repression or breaches of human rights. However, PI claims that it has repeatedly chosen not to exercise these powers.
The group said that, if the government fails to act within 21 days, it will file for judicial review and if appropriate seek an urgent injunction to stop any new exports, and prevent updates to systems previously sold to repressive regimes.
Earlier this year, the Dutch Green party called for a change in the law so that sales of surveillance technology would be banned to countries that violate human rights.
The European commissioner for the digital agenda, Neelie Kroes, backed the call, stating that it is both a legal issue and a moral issue, and companies must take an active responsibility for their actions.