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Selling Spy Tools to Oppressive Governments: How One UK Company Found Itself in Hot Water

The rapid pace at which technology continues to advance has been both a blessing and a curse in terms of surveillance tools in particular. On the one hand, it’s easier than ever to maintain total visibility over your life at all times. If you have people coming into your home to work or complete errands when you’re not there, you can use an incredibly affordable camera complete with an Internet connection to keep a watchful eye over them all day long. If you’ve got a babysitter who watches your children while you’re away, you can rest easy knowing that a live HD video feed of your home is just a few finger taps away on your smartphone.

Unfortunately, the reverse is also true—it’s easier than ever for everyone from normal people with malicious intentions to foreign governments to pry into our personal lives, especially if they’ve got private businesses helping them out. This recently turned out to be the case in the United Kingdom, where it was revealed that one company was actively selling monitoring tools to foreign, authoritarian governments, which were likely being used to surveil for signs and then stamp out dissenters around the world.

BAE Systems: What You Need to Know

After a lengthy investigation conducted by the BBC in association with the Danish newspaper Dagbladet Information, it was revealed that a private UK company—BAE Systems—was actively shipping surveillance tools to oppressive Middle Eastern governments. This unique relationship began after BAE Systems purchased ETI, a Danish company, which itself had built a highly sophisticated surveillance system known as “Evident.”

The “Evident” surveillance solution is so advanced that it can determine the location of nearly anyone using cell phone data, voice recognition data, and more. It can reportedly track a person’s online activity and can even crack encrypted messages on a massive scale, which is a large part of why it caught the eye of governments like those of Algeria, Morocco, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. Even government officials in the United Arab Emirates began using “Evident” at some point in the last few years, according to Tunisian intelligence officials who spoke to the BBC on condition of anonymity.

BAE Systems executed its purchase of ETI in January of 2011. If that date sounds familiar, it’s because it was right around the same time that the “Arab Spring” was taking place in several nations in the Middle East.

The use of “Evident” was said to have been far-reaching almost immediately. Former Tunisian President Ben Ali—who himself was ousted in January of 2011—reportedly used it to track anyone he viewed as a political enemy. People who have had direct access to “Evident” have described it as a “giant search system” that leaves no stone unturned, collecting huge amounts of data on targets both large and small in a short amount of time.

The “Evident” Effect: Diving Deeper Than Ever Before

If a member of a government were to type the name of someone they view as an enemy into “Evident,” it would immediately return social media handles, website information, online behavioral data, and other essential pieces of information. Using this as a starting point, those individuals could then be actively tracked in real-time as they continue to use the Internet.

While BAE Systems may be the most high-profile technology company in the United Kingdom to sell these types of solutions to oppressive governments, they are unfortunately not the first—nor the last. According to research conducted by the experts at Motherboard, other notable businesses like CellXion, Cobham, and Domo Tactical Communications have sold “stingrays” to governments around the world. “Stingrays” are commonly used by law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the United States to mimic legitimate cell towers, collecting personal information of any phone users in the immediate area.

All of this merely serves to underline the point that there may very well be no such thing as true “privacy” in the digital age. Even if you take significant measures to protect your online activities (like embracing encryption when sending messages), you still never know who might be watching.

 

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