UK company sold spy tools to the repressive governments battling the ‘Arab Spring’

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Saudi police officers brief the media on the Security Surveillance Control Centre in Mena, in 2007.
Saudi police officers brief the media on the Security Surveillance Control Centre in Mena, in 2007.

Image: nabil Mounzer/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

A UK company sold surveillance tools to authoritarian governments that could be used to stamp out signs of dissent.  

BAE Systems, according to an investigation conducted by the BBC and the Danish newspaper Dagbladet Information, began shopping surveillance tools to governments in the Middle East after they bought a Danish company called ETI, which built a surveillance system known as “Evident.” 

That purchase happened in January 2011, around the same time of popular uprisings in several Middle Eastern nations that came to be collectively known as the “Arab Spring.” 

The system is reportedly designed to determine a target’s location via cellphone data, recognize voices, track a person’s internet activity, and crack encrypted messages, all on a giant scale. 

The governments of Algeria, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have all reportedly bought the system, though a telling bit of information came from a Tunisian intelligence official quoted by the BBC. 

Under former President Ben Ali — ousted in January 2011 — the Tunisian government used the system to track anyone it viewed as an enemy. The intelligence official described to the BBC what amounts to a giant search system. 

Type in the name of someone the government doesn’t like, and a list of their social media handles, websites, and other bits of information pops up. From there, the government can follow a person’s online activity across platforms. 

BAE Systems is not alone among British technology companies who sell surveillance equipment to foreign governments, according to Motherboard. They, along with others such as CellXion, Cobham, ComsTrac, and Domo Tactical Communications, have sold governments a device known as “stingrays.” 

Stingrays, which are also used by law enforcement in the United States, act as fake cellphone towers to capture cell data. 

All of this technology allows oppressive governments to spy on their citizens, but it may also allow officials from those countries to gather information on conversations happening in the UK. These governments, of course, have embassies in the UK, and it wouldn’t be hard for officials to set up surveillance at those embassies and let the technology do what it’s supposed to. 

Oh the irony.

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