UK companies are highly active in the world of surveillance technology. They export their products to countries across the globe, including democracies and authoritarian regimes. But, surveillance firms don’t do this on their own.
Instead, various parts of the government, including the Department for International Trade, overseas embassies, and the country’s intelligence agencies, have a much closer relationship with surveillance companies, helping to get UK spying tech around the world and protecting those firms’ commercial interests, according to a contractor and public records requests filed by Motherboard.
“Big arms and security companies are considered strategic assets and are supported in a way no other industry is,” Edin Omanovic, who specializes on surveillance exports at campaign group Privacy International, told Motherboard in an email.
In private conversations within the surveillance industry that were later detailed to Motherboard, an engineer from established security contractor BAE Systems said that the company “work[s] very closely with Cheltenham; they know everything we do,” specifically pointing to Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the UK’s premier signals intelligence agency. Some of the company’s interception technologies have to be approved by GCHQ, the engineer added.
The company sells surveillance tech to 40 to 50 different countries, including Oman, and typically aligns itself with trades that will not conflict with the interests of Her Majesty’s Government (HMG), the engineer suggested.
“Turkey has a big security problem that does concern HMG,” the engineer said, referring to issues HMG may be monitoring.
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For overseas trades, BAE also works closely with local embassies. That work would not be possible without UK embassies’ support, the engineer suggested.
“We are committed to operating ethically and responsibly,” a spokesperson from BAE told Motherboard in an email. GCHQ did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP, a member of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, told Motherboard in a statement that, "Between BAE, which says it's against exporting eavesdropping equipment that could be used for repression and the government, which says it is illegal to do so, something is going very wrong because we have seen exports of their evidence system to Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Qatar and Algeria."
Back in England the Home Office, a ministerial department of HMG, holds an annual Security & Policing event where UK companies can advertise their wares to potential clients.
“It benefits everyone involved,” Omanovic said. “The Home Office gets to look at the most advanced tech on the market and gets to sell British kit to foreign allies, agencies from some of the most authoritarian regimes in the world get to go shopping for more surveillance, and companies get an opportunity to peddle all their systems, all in a cozy environment free from any media.”
When a UK company wants to export surveillance technology, it has to apply for a license from the Department for International Trade, telling the government what the item is, what it’s capable of, and where it plan to ship the technology to. The Department has disclosed company names and product descriptions at least once before, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Motherboard in 2016. But the Department has since refused to release those details at all, saying that the information needs to be protected for “commercial interests.”
Omanovic said “It shows that the department is more concerned about protecting security companies than it is about protecting people’s human rights or government transparency.”
“Transparency is massively important because without it the parliament and the public aren’t able to keep the department accountable: you’re not able to know if a decision being taken is the right one without first knowing what that decision is,” he added.
A spokesperson from the The Department for International Trade told Motherboard in an email, “The UK operates one of the most transparent export control systems in the world and routinely publishes more information about licensing decisions than any of our major competitors. Applications are submitted in confidence and contain commercially sensitive information."