Britain has 14 days to answer questions on tech exports to despotic regimes

The UK government could be facing legal action over its lack of action in blocking the sale of surveillance technologies to oppressive regimes

The British government could soon be facing legal action over its lack of intervention in allowing the sale of surveillance technology to regimes that routinely breach human rights laws.

The Export Control Act 2002 gives the government the option to block the export of goods or technical assistance capable of enabling internal repression or breaches of human rights, but it has chosen not to use the option, according to the charity organisation Privacy International.

Its lawyers have been asking the UK government why it allows British technology to be sold to such regimes since at least November 2011, according to Privacy International. Earlier in July, the organisation's lawyers Bhatt Murphy took this one step further, demanding that the Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills respond to the questions within 21 days or face a judicial review.

"In the wrong hands, today's surveillance technologies can have devastating effect. Human rights defenders, political dissidents and other vulnerable groups around the world are being targeted by increasingly sophisticated state surveillance, much of it supplied by British companies," Privacy International said in a statement.

"Secret police in three continents are currently using British technology to enter victims' computers and mobile devices, commandeer the cameras and microphones for surveillance, monitor all email, instant messenger and voice call activity — including Skype — and transform mobile phones into location tracking devices," Privacy International added.

'Peddling their wares to repressive regimes'

The group points to examples in the media where British companies have been found to be offering technical assistance to dictatorial regimes.

"British companies have been peddling their wares to repressive regimes for years now. 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," Eric King, head of research at Privacy International, said in a statement. "The government must stop exports of British surveillance technologies to despotic regimes before more harm is done."

The letter demanding a response to its questions is the initial stage of what could be a more drawn out legal process, which could potentially lead to a judicial review and urgent injunction request if a response is not received within 14 days.

"The letter before claim is the first step in the process of bringing legal action - we'll be filing a claim on Monday 6 August unless the government puts appropriate export controls in place before then," a Privacy International spokeswoman told ZDNet on Monday.


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