British ministers have approved the export of more than £2.4m worth of telecoms snooping gear to Saudi Arabia, in spite of its very obvious human rights problems, according to a report.
Five licences were granted to send "telecommunications interception equipment" to the controversial kingdom, which was most recently in the news over the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside its embassy in Istanbul.
The deal was brought to light by Freedom of Information requests from political news website Politics Home.
This year, the site reported, ministers from the Department of International Trade signed off three permanent contracts worth £2.4m for the export of interception kit. International Trade Secretary Liam Fox is a former Defence Secretary, while Saudi Arabia remains one of the top destinations for British-made military kit such as fighter jets. It appears that that also includes British-designed equipment whose primary purpose is internal surveillance.
Politics Home also reported that "previous UK exports of spy tech have included controversial IMSI Catchers", which are used to precisely identify who is in a given location by exploiting mobile phone telecoms specs to make handsets give up their unique IMSI numbers to a fake base station operated by state agents.
Such equipment has obvious uses in a tightly-controlled country ruled by theocrats.
A DIT spokesman told Politics Home: "Risks around human rights abuses are a key part of our licensing assessment and the government will not license the export of items where to do so would be inconsistent with any provision of the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria. All export license applications are considered on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated Criteria, based on the most up-to-date information and analysis available, including reports from Non-Government Organisations and our overseas networks."
Edin Omanovic, head of Privacy International's state surveillance programme, told the site that some countries "have a track record of targeting commercially-available surveillance technology against activists and journalists. Such exports should absolutely not have been approved. By empowering authoritarian agencies, it not only undermines people's human rights, but the work of activists, journalists, and opposition groups which is key for promoting democratisation and the UK's own long-term security interests."
Three years ago, Saudi Arabia came close to buying a controlling stake in infamous Italian offensive hacking tech company Hacking Team. ®