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Britain’s Surveillance Tech: Is There an Ethical Line to Avoid?

 5 min read / 

In recent memory, the Honduran government’s crackdown on protestors was aided by surveillance. Revelations about British surveillance equipment being sold to Honduras, prior to the government’s heavy-handed repression, is a blow to democracy in many respects.

At first hand, this topic may appear straightforward. However the complexities of surveillance, national security and ethics make it difficult to cast judgment on the UK for selling intrusive spy gear to repressive states.

As reported by the Guardian, “The British government sanctioned sales of spy equipment to Honduras shortly before a disputed general election led to a violent crackdown on opposition protesters and activists in the Central American country”.

Grappling with Threats

Like any other nation in the world, Honduras has to grapple with genuine national security threats that may require unsavoury measures such as intercepting and decrypting private content in order to uncover threats. Without surveillance, most nations would have to face a number of threats without knowing where they emanate from and the number of people that orchestrated certain crimes. Having said this, it is necessary to draw a line between supplying surveillance for the sake of national security and surveillance to aid repression against protestors.

Conversely, this is a very difficult task, as criminals do not stop being criminals during social uprisings. As legitimate protests are taking place, hardened criminals seek to continue illegal activity or capitalise on unrest. Irrespective of how disruptive nationwide protests may be, the government still requires surveillance equipment to deal with other national security issues, before, during and after social uprisings.

From this angle, it is equally immoral to deny a nation the equipment to track foreign adversaries and domestic criminals that wish to do harm to Honduras and its citizens. Whilst Britain wants to maintain democratic standards, it is inexorably bound to the harsh reality of international politics and security threats that change the terrain in which nations are forced to manoeuvre in. It is within this harsh reality that democratic nations undertake undemocratic policies such as selling surveillance equipment to nations accused of human rights abuses. Much to the dismay of privacy advocates, this reasoning rebuffs calls to block the sale of such technology to states that have been repeatedly been accused of repression.

A Similar Story Elsewhere

In contrast, silence in the face of surveillance during government crackdowns in Latin America is not new. During Operation Condor, a South American plan to monitor and eliminate protestors that spoke out against repressive regimes in Latin America, the US was also complicit.

In fact, Henry Kissinger personally blocked the “Demarche” that was due to be sent to heads of state in Chile, Argentina and other South American states, in order to inform them of Washington’s disapproval of heavy-handed tactics that were being exercised. Furthermore, released documents have revealed that the U.S. wanted to undertake “periodic exchanges with the government of Argentina of information on the general level and mode of Communist and other terrorist activity in the hemisphere and elsewhere if the GOA [Government of Argentina] would be interested”.

This was during a period when Argentina and its neighbours were abducting, torturing and assassinating thousands of “terrorists”, otherwise known as activists. In many respects, some may feel that the West has not learned its lesson about aiding repressive states during times of social unrest.

On the other hand, drawing ethical lines in the context of surveillance is a very difficult task to do as the most democratic nations in the world (by western standards) are some of the biggest offenders of privacy intrusions as revealed by Edward Snowden’s leaks.

The Assad Regime

Moreover, parts of this analysis will not sit well with human rights activists and to a great extent rightfully so.

If one took the above example, concerning Britain and Honduras, and applied it to Syria, many people would be appalled if nations or companies were caught selling Assad intrusive surveillance equipment. Why, one might ask? Because, surveillance is a vital lifeline that enables a regime to survive during social uprisings, as the state is able to track key protest leaders & civilians. In many cases, some of those who are tracked end up abducted, imprisoned or worse.

In 2011, this was partly the case when an Italian tech company, Area SpA, assisted the Assad regime in setting up with intrusive surveillance software. According to a Bloomberg investigation, “Employees of Area SpA, a surveillance company based outside Milan, are installing the system under the direction of Syrian intelligence agents”. Such measures allowed Syrian intelligence analysts to “follow targets” and their “communications and Web use in near-real time”.

To this end, the Assad regime was able to pick out huge numbers of civilians and protestors. Irrespective of whether a nation or private vendor has good intentions of aiding national security concerns in other countries, the blunt reality is that repressive regimes will use such software & direct it at peaceful protestors during a time of social unrest.

The UK’s Responsibility

The UK, which possesses some of the most advanced cyber equipment in the world, should know exactly what the repercussions of selling intrusive software will be. Seeing as this knowledge has not deterred the UK, perhaps it would be acceptable for Russia to do the same with Iran.

The geopolitical implications of Britain’s decision to sell Honduras surveillance software may damage the UK’s future credibility to raise concerns about another country selling similar equipment to oppressive regimes. Without a respected moral voice to deter the sale of surveillance technology, repressive states may find it easier and easier to acquire them.

Selling regimes powerful cyber weapons is an ethical Rubicon that should not be crossed so freely. Nonetheless, society must truly understand the full impact that surveillance can have before casting judgment.

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