UK Government Faces Lawsuit Over Surveillance Technology Exports

Tom Brewster is TechWeek Europe's Security Correspondent. He has also been named BT Information Security Journalist of the Year in 2012 and 2013.

Snooping gear has gone to Syria, Iran and Egypt, and Privacy International isn’t happy

A major privacy group today said it is planning to take the UK government to court for allowing egregious surveillance technology to be exported to repressive foreign regimes.

Privacy International said evidence of surveillance technology being sold to foreign powers such as Iran has been amassing since 2011. The body claimed last year that Creativity Software had been selling a location-tracking system to Iran.

Reports also alleged Gamma International was selling “FinSpy” technology to the now-fallen Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak. That technology, sold as part of Gamma’s FinFisher range of products, could have been used by the regime to hack into citizens’ email accounts, or even full control of their computers, aping the tactics of cyber criminals, reports claimed.

Privacy International has now sent a letter to Vince Cable, secretary of state for business innovation and skills, asking the government to change the rules which allow such technology to be easily exported.

Out of date export rules?

The letter claims the controls have not kept pace with the way the market and the technology have shifted, given the industry is now worth $3 billion a year. It points to Gamma as one of the chief pushers of surveillance technology, claiming it was “illustrative of a wide-scale problem and indicative of the need for the UK to take urgent action.

“It is [Privacy International’s] view that the FinFisher range of products and other surveillance equipment of concern, designed to access an individual’s computer or other device without their consent can be distinguishable from other software, which may have other uses and where export controls are not necessary,” the letter read.

The group has given the government 21 days (14 from today) to take action and update the list of products that need to be checked before export. If the government does not respond as the body wants, Privacy International will  file for judicial review and, if appropriate, seek an injunction preventing British companies selling surveillance technologies to repressive regimes and stopping them from maintaining and updating those systems already sold.

A Privacy International spokesperson said the body fully expects to go to court, as it is unlikely the government will take action.

Eric King, head of research at Privacy International, told TechWeekEurope that along with Creative and Gamma, there were “a number of others who are deeply complicit in selling this stuff abroad”. “Overwhelmingly the surveillance industry is British,” King claimed.

Last year, UK security firm Sophos was implicated in selling surveillance technology through its Utimaco subsidiary, which ended up being used for spying technology in Syria. A Newsnight and Bureau of Investigative Journalism report found Utimaco had sold kit to Italian organisation Area, the equipment then being packaged up for sale to the Syrian government.

King said Privacy International is currently only interested in looking at the “worst of the worst technologies”, but may look at getting other intrusive technologies onto the list of those that require government approval before being shipped abroad.

The government does not have to make any fresh legislation, only update that export list, something King said was “an incredibly simple fix”.

If the Coalition fails to respond in 14 days, it will mark the first time Privacy International has taken the UK government to court. It is hoping to get a protective cost order so it can afford to carry out what will potentially be a lengthy court battle.

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