in the back
Repressing engagements
Security & Policing, Issue 1467
security.jpg THE Home Office calls Security & Policing, a trade fair displaying intelligence and police technology to delegations from authoritarian countries, “the only ‘closed’ event of its kind”. Journalists are barred from the government-funded fair, but the Eye has documents and verbatim reports from inside the event revealing the sort of surveillance kit offered to delegates from human-rights-abusing nations.

Since 2010 the government has invited “government security-related delegates” from countries including Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Kazakhstan and Pakistan to what had previously been a trade fair for UK police (see Eye 1464). This year’s Security & Policing was at Farnborough international conference centre last month.

Top-level interception
Two main kinds of “lawful interception” surveillance technology were a big draw. Firstly, interception of phone, SMS, email and internet use inside telecommunications companies (telcos) – the digital equivalent of tapping a phone at the exchange. Secondly, surveillance of selected phones and laptops by malware or other methods – the equivalent of putting a bug inside an individual phone. These systems can be used to fight terrorism or crime – but many repressive Gulf states define dissent as political crime, and if they have these surveillance systems they can, will and do use them against political protesters. BAE Systems is the biggest UK firm involved in “lawful interception”, working with top-level interception based inside national telcos for a market that covers 40-50 countries. Its engineer said these were “all HMG friends, so obviously we do work very closely with Cheltenham [GCHQ], who know everything we do”.

BAE’s engineer said this definitely included the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE), although there were judgements about some countries, with some restrictions on exports to Bahrain, for example. However, he also explained that they look for the good side of the repressive sheikhdoms, saying of Qatar: “They have a good warrant system and legal system. They have good judicial oversight. Do they potentially have some human rights issues? Yeah, maybe. But are they using surveillance for that? Our view, through our ethics committee, is no.” He added that, thanks in part to sales of surveillance tech, Qatar “are a safe, relatively terrorism-free country who are secure in an unstable Gulf region, and that’s what HMG wants them to be”.

Gamma Group, an Italian firm which sells to repressive states, was also at the fair. Its brochures offered both main levels of interception, offering one system to “monitor calls and signals entering or exiting your country” over fibre networks. It claims this “intercept” has standard settings to monitor up to 5,670 simultaneous calls, with full audio playback, and “can be scaled to over 60,000 simultaneous calls”.

Gamma’s other system gathered mobile phone comms in one area by “emulating” a mobile phone mast, but by being “more attractive than the real network”, capturing signals from mobile phones.

Human rights concerns
British firm Smith Myers also sells systems that act like fake phone towers. In 2015, Privacy International revealed that Smith Myers sold to Colombian security services, who are subject to human rights concerns. At Security & Policing, its salesman said it markets this surveillance “all over the place, everywhere we can get UK export control clearance”, and “we have had in the past customers in the GCC countries”. Its fake mobile masts cost between £50,000 and £250,000.

Newcomer Grey Heron sells tech for individual surveillance. It has a “system for monitoring traffic on cellphones and computers, getting past encryption to see what the suspect is up to”. It could get into individual communications, including WhatsApp, but only by infecting a device with malware. As Eye 1464 noted, Grey Heron mainly comprises staff from Italian firm Hacking Team, which was itself hacked in 2015, with activists exposing its work for authoritarian nations from Azerbaijan to Saudi Arabia.

At the fair Grey Heron’s man revealed: “We’ve spun out of other companies that do similar kinds of work – a couple of the people from a company called Hacking Team, kind of notorious for their operation. An advantage that we have is that we don’t have that history.”

Any sales agreed at Security & Policing would have to be licensed, but Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP, who has exposed the UK’s lax licensing of surveillance technology exports, told the Eye: “The government is using public money to connect repressive regimes with manufacturers of equipment used to hunt down dissidents. If the government is confident it is not promoting exports that degrade human rights, why the secrecy?”

More top stories in the latest issue:

An appeal court ruling on Libor rigging may have awkward implications for the Serious Fraud Office in the case of UBS and Citigroup trader Tom Hayes, whose conviction is now under review.

There’s plenty of blame to share out, between the navy and its suppliers, over engine problems with the UK’s Type 45 destroyers.

Documents from inside troubled outsourcing firm Capita reveal pisspoor performance in vetting both people and shrimp.

Southern Water agrees to new limits on abstraction for struggling chalk streams, but is reminded to invest in long-term resources.

A recording of a 2011 phone call between Libor-setting bankers and the British Bankers’ Association supports claims that there was official tolerance of submitting rates influenced by commercial interests.

Failing canal infrastructure traps boats between broken bridges after years of underinvestment.

Skiers in Scotland struggle to reach the slopes despite the hugely expensive mountain railway.

Pleas for more resources from the understaffed Deepcut barracks met with short shrift from army HQ, the inquest into the death of Sean Benton heard.

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Private Eye Issue 1466