Journalists in the UK and Denmark have uncovered evidence that BAE Systems – the UK's largest arms companies and one of the largest in the world – has profited from the sale of surveillance technology, including to many oppressive governments in the Middle East.
ETI, a Danish company bought by BAE Systems in 2011 for £137m, developed a system called Evident. Evident is capable of pinpointing an individuals location based on data from their mobile phone, decrypt encrypted messages, and had advanced voice recognition capabilities. Users of the technology could monitor a whole countries internet use, and filter websites, blogs, and social media by specific key words, such as the name of an opponent of the government. An anonymous source who used to work at ETI told the BBC “You would be able to intercept any internet traffic. If you wanted to do a whole country, go ahead. You would probably need something to narrow your search down, either by a specific person, a specific email address, specific IP address or specific keywords to search for.”
The BBC (UK) and the Dagbladet Information newspaper (Denmark) used freedom of information requests to reveal the technology had been exported to countries including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Oman, Morocco and Algeria. Many of these countries have questionable human rights records, including targetting pro-democracy activists during the Arab Spring uprisings, were mobile technology and social media played a key part in organising protests.
The BBC made clear that it's impossible to link the circumstances of particular activists, human rights activists and democracy campaigners have seen a huge impact of surveillance technology since the start of the Arab spring. The media group spoke to Yahya Assiri, a former Saudi air force officer who fled the country after posting pro-democracy statements online, who said "I wouldn't be exaggerating if I said more than 90% of the most active campaigners in 2011 have now vanished."
All of the sales of the Evident system were entirely legal, licensed for export under Danish government export licenses, issued by the Danish Business Authority.