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The New Arab Staff

UK selling spyware to 'repressive states' including Saudi Arabia and the UAE

The UK has also been accused of 'illegally' selling arms to Saudi Arabia [Getty]

Date of publication: 13 July, 2020

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The UK has sold nearly $100 million worth of spyware to authoritarian governments despite rules preventing security exports to countries that might use the technology for internal repression.
The UK has sold millions of dollars worth of spyware and wiretapping technology to authoritarian governments despite laws preventing such exports, The Independent has reported.

Over the past five years, the UK government has signed off on more than £75 million ($95 million) in such sales to countries ranked "not free" by Freedom House, including top customer the UAE.

Despite regulations preventing the sale of such equipment to countries that might use it for internal repression, the UK has exported spyware and other security goods to 17 countries routinely decried as rights abusers.

The UAE has been the biggest recipent of such licenses, with sales totalling £11.5 million ($14.5 million) since 2015.

Other countries on the list include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and China.

The UK has also exported such goods to countries that, while not rated as "not free" by Freedom House, have drawn attention in recent years for rights abuses. 

Oliver Feeley-Sprague, Amnesty International's UK programme director for military, security and police affairs, told The Independent that the UK government was quickly becoming "notorious" for failing to take the necessary risk assessments before selling arms, spyware and other goods to foreign countries.

The UK has been accused of continuing to sell arms to Saudi Arabia despite a 2019 court ruling banning the export of weapons and other military equipment that could be used in Yemen.

Trade Secretary Liz Truss announced earlier this month that the UK government would resume arms sales to Riyadh despite the devastating civilian death toll in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has led an international coalition fighting Houthi rebels since 2015.


"These figures are cause for real concern, unless and until UK ministers can demonstrate that proper safeguards against repressive misuse were in place when this equipment was dispatched," Feeley-Spague said of the sale of spyware and other telecoms equipment.

"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," he told The Independent.

A "root-and-branch overhaul" of the UK's arms and security export system is necessary, Feeley-Spague said. 

"This overhaul should include the introduction of a far more coherent and comprehensive system of reporting that clearly shows exactly what we are selling, to whom and why," he explained.

In recent years, Israel has also come under fire for allowing the export of controversial spyware technology to authoritarian regimes including Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Spyware sold by Israel's NSO Group has been implicated in hacks targeting journalists, dissidents and human rights activists across the world.

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