Fears that software similar to that which government wants to use in Britain is being sold to monitor dissidents abroad
Britain is exporting surveillance technology to countries run by repressive regimes, sparking fears it is being used to track political dissidents and activists.
The UK's enthusiastic role in the burgeoning but unregulated surveillance market is becoming an urgent concern for human rights groups, who want the government to ensure that exports are regulated in a similar way to arms.
Much of the technology, which allows regimes to monitor internet traffic, mobile phone calls and text messages, is similar to that which the government has controversially signalled it wants to use in the UK.
The campaign group, Privacy International, which monitors the use of surveillance technology, claims equipment being exported includes devices known as "IMSI catchers" that masquerade as normal mobile phone masts and identify phone users and malware – software that can allow its operator to control a target's computer, while allowing the interception to remain undetected.
Trojan horse software that allows hackers to remotely activate the microphone and camera on another person's phone, and "optical cyber solutions" that can tap submarine cable landing stations, allowing for the mass surveillance of entire populations, are also being exported, according to the group.
Privacy International said it had visited international arms and security fairs and identified at least 30 UK companies that it believes have exported surveillance technology to countries including Syria, Iran, Yemen and Bahrain. A further 50 companies exporting similar technology from the US were also identified. Germany and Israel were also identified as big exporters of surveillance technology, in what is reportedly a £3bn a year industry.
Last month Privacy International asked 160 companies about sales of equipment to repressive regimes. So far fewer than 10 have written back to deny selling to nations with poor human rights records. The campaign group warns: "The emerging information and communications infrastructures of developing countries are being hijacked for surveillance purposes, and the information thereby collected is facilitating unlawful interrogation practices, torture and extrajudicial executions."
Many of the brochures, presentations and marketing videos used by surveillance companies to promote their technology have now been posted on the WikiLeaks website, while a list of firms identified by Privacy International as a cause for concern has been provided to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The trade minister, Mark Prisk, has been briefed on the situation.
Last month the European council banned the export of surveillance technologies to Iranian authorities in response to serious human rights violations. It has imposed similar bans on exports to Syria.
But human rights groups said equipment was still being sold to commercial organisations in the two countries and called for the government to take stronger action.
"By the time the embargo is in place the ship has sailed," said Eric King, head of research at Privacy International. "Our research shows the idea that this is not a British problem is wrong. We need governments to act now. In a few years this equipment will need to be updated; these countries don't have the technical expertise to do it, so this is something the UK needs to be aware of and to take action against now."
In December it emerged a British company had offered to sell software to Egyptian security services that experts say could hack into web-based email. The company, Gamma Group International, insists it "complies, in all its dealings, with all relevant UK legislation".
Last year a public outcry forced an Italian company to pull out of supplying Syria with "deep packet investigation" technology that would allow the country's security forces to access internet service providers. But Syriatel Mobile, Syria's largest mobile phone operator, uses blocking technology provided by a Dublin-based company.
Creativity Software (CS), a British firm specialising in "location-based services", sold technology to the mobile network operator MTN Irancell that campaign groups said could be used to track individuals. The company said its technology provided "the same type of activities that are enjoyed by consumers in many other markets – a hugely popular and successful social networking and location-based mobile advertising service".
It is the responsibility of manufacturers to ensure their technology is not used to perpetrate human rights abuses. But there are now calls for them to be subject to stringent export controls requiring a licence to sell abroad.
Privacy International also argues that, in order to prevent dangerous technologies reaching authoritarian regimes through middlemen, there is a need for "end-use" controls that would make it illegal for companies to provide their products when they know or suspect they will be used in human rights abuses.
In a letter to Privacy International, Downing Street said the government was "actively looking at this issue" and was working within the EU to introduce new controls on surveillance.
Surveillance camera image via Shutterstock.com.