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UK must stall export of surveillance tech to brutal regimes, or face legal action

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Liat Clark
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A privacy charity says it is prepared to take legal action against the UK government if it fails to explain why it has not restricted the export of British surveillance technologies to repressive regimes, including Iran, Egypt and Syria.

Privacy International, which first put the question directly to David Cameron in November 2011, has sent a letter to business secretary Vince Cable and is demanding an answer to its queries within the next two weeks. If the government fails to take action under the 2002 Export Control Act -- which states that the secretary of state may prevent the export of technology if the transfer could be used in "breaches of human rights" or "internal repression in any country" -- the charity is prepared to file for a judicial review on 6 August and even request an injunction to stall technology companies' exports and to prevent them maintaining those technologies already exported to questionable authorities.

"British companies have been peddling their wares to repressive regimes for years now," said Privacy International's head of research Eric King in a statement. "Publicly condemning the abuses of dictators like Al-Assad while turning a blind eye to the fact that British technologies may be facilitating these abuses is the worst kind of hypocrisy. The government must stop exports of British surveillance technologies to despotic regimes before more harm is done."

The charity claims that British surveillance technologies are currently aiding secret police across three continents in infiltrating citizens' computers and mobile devices, retrieving information from built-in cameras and microphones, emails, texts and VoIP calls, and using the gathered data as evidence "during subsequent torturous interrogations".

As support for its argument, Privacy International flagged up the controversy surrounding software company Gamma International. When rebel forces raided the headquarters of Hosni Mubarak's secret police in 2011, they discovered a licence to run Gamma's FinFisher software, which uses flaws in the update alerts of programs such as iTunes to covertly install spy software in computers. In its initial 2011 address to David Cameron, Privacy International also flagged up Kingston-based company Creativity's export of its location-tracking system to Iran, demanding that Cameron take responsibility for the government's apathetic, turn-a-blind-eye approach to this unmonitored side of the UK's export industry.

"For the coalition government to have done nothing about this unethical trade as yet is laxness bordering on negligence," said King at the time. "Now that the international trade in surveillance technology is the subject of worldwide scrutiny, they must take immediate action in order for the UK to maintain -- and deserve -- our reputation as global leaders in human rights."