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Britain's sale of spyware to Gulf autocrats raises concern

Cyberattack [REUTERS/Kacper Pempel]
Cyberattack, 19 September 2019 [REUTERS/Kacper Pempel]

The UK singed off more than £75 million ($94 million) worth of spyware and wiretaps normally used to curtail freedoms to some of the most authoritarian regimes in the world including Saudi Arabia the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain.

Seventeen countries rated "not free" by the NGO Freedom House, were recipients of the technology, accord to public records uncovered by the Independent. China is also amongst the beneficiaries of the UK's lax approach to the sale of such technology normally used for political repression.

The multi-million dollar sale has attracted criticism from the Labour Party. "The government has a legal and moral duty to ensure exports from Britain are not used by other countries for the purposes of internal repression" Labour's shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry told the Independent.

Thornberry  suggested that the risk of potential misuse of such technology by repressive regimes was not at the forefront of the UK government's mind, pointing out that countries such as the three Gulf states "have a track record of harassing political opponents and undermining democratic freedoms, and when the equipment concerned is ripe to be abused in that way."

"The government needs to show urgently how those risks were assessed in these cases, and how this equipment was ultimately used," Thornberry demanded.

READ: Britain is two-faced over Saudi Arabia

A government spokesperson is reported in the Independent saying: "The government takes its export responsibilities seriously and assesses all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria. We will not issue any export licences where to do so would be inconsistent with these criteria."

This assurance was dismissed by Oliver Feeley-Sprague, Amnesty International UK's programme director for military, security and police affairs. The UK did not seem to be undertaking proper risk assessments when selling such equipment, Feeley-Sprague said, adding that the government's controls were becoming "notorious" for their "faulty decision-making".

"With numerous human rights defenders arrested and jailed in countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey in the past five years, there's a greater need than ever for the UK to be absolutely scrupulous in assessing the risk of UK telecoms technology being used unlawfully against human rights activists, journalists, and peaceful opposition figures," Feeley-Sprague explained.

Last week Britain announced its decision to resume arms sale to Saudi Arabia despite concerns from human rights groups. An investigation by Declassified UK concluded in a new damning report, "Paralysing a nation", that the Saudi-led coalition received British training on naval tactics that are said to have been used to blockade Yemen, an embargo which UN experts have described as "unlawful".

READ: Iran denies Israel cyberattack caused fire in nuclear facility

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