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UK to host spyware firm accused of aiding human rights abuses | World news


The British government is helping a controversial Israeli spyware company to market its surveillance technologies at a secretive trade fair visited by repressive regimes, the Guardian can reveal.

The government will host the NSO Group, which sells technology that has allegedly been used by autocratic regimes to spy on the private messages of journalists and human rights activists, at the closed Security and Policing trade fair in Hampshire next month.

The NSO Group is due to be an exhibitor at the three-day fair, where police and security officials from abroad can browse commercial stalls selling surveillance and crowd-control equipment.

Around 60 foreign delegations are typically hosted by the British government to the fair. In the last four years they have included countries whose human rights records have been criticised such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Oman, Qatar and Hong Kong. The identities of this year’s delegations are not known as they are usually announced on the opening day of the fair.

NSO has faced allegations that its technology is used to target human rights activists and reporters around the world. At least three UK residents are among those who are alleged to have been targeted using spyware sold by NSO. Among them is a prominent London-based satirist who is suing Saudi Arabia in the UK courts alleging that the Riyadh regime targeted him using malware developed by the firm.

The company is being sued in the US by WhatsApp, the popular messaging app, which has alleged that 1,400 of its users were hacked over a two-week period last year. NSO has denied the allegation.

The company’s signature spyware has also allegedly been used to target journalists, including a recently revealed case involving a reporter for the New York Times who is alleged to have been targeted by Saudi Arabia using NSO technology. NSO has denied the allegation.

Last week Reuters reported that the FBI was examining whether NSO technology was used against Americans. The firm said it was not aware of any inquiry.

The annual trade fair is organised by the Home Office and the Department for International Trade. The NSO Group has attended previously.

The general public have been barred from the fairs. Whitehall memos show that the government has a strict criteria for selecting who attends and exhibits. Last year Lloyd Russell-Moyle, a Labour MP who was sitting on the parliamentary committee examining arms exports, was denied entry.

The Home Office bills the fair as “THE official government global security event, offering a world-class opportunity” to network with government officials and buy technology from commercial firms.

More than 300 firms, mainly from the UK, are due to exhibit their products at this year’s fair, which will open on 3 March at the Farnborough airport exhibition centre.

Brochures from previous years show how firms were seeking to sell equipment for many kinds of surveillance, from software that “intercepts” national phone and internet systems to traditional “bugs” that can be attached to cars or hidden in walls. Some exhibitors are promising “immersive experiences” to help sell their products.

Ministers are due to give keynote addresses at the fair, which is also attended by senior government officials.

In its promotional material for the fair, the NSO Group calls itself a “global leader in the world of cyber-intelligence, data acquisition and analysis”. It says it sells its technology to selected intelligence agencies, militaries and law enforcement organisations around the world to fight crime and terrorism.

It says it is “committed to the proper use of its technology to help governments strengthen public safety and protect against major security threats”.

There are three cases of NSO technology allegedly being used to target British residents. They include Ghanem Almasarir, a satirist known for mocking the Saudi royal family, Faustin Rukundo, a British citizen who is a member of a Rwandan opposition group and lives in exile, and a lawyer who is involved in a civil case against the Israeli surveillance company. NSO has said its technology is only intended to be used to fight crime and terrorism.

Martyn Day, a lawyer representing Almasarir, said: “Unless the government is prepared to take a stand and make it clear that it is inappropriate for such software to be sold to oppressive regimes then we are nothing short of colluding with those very regimes in their oppression of dissidents.

A Home Office spokesperson said in a statement: “The government will do all it can to help keep British people and British interests safe in the UK and overseas”.

  • Have you got new information about the NSO Group or the UK’s Security and Policing trade fair? You can email stephanie.kirchgaessner@theguardian.com or confidentially message Guardian investigations using Signal or WhatsApp: +447584640566. For the most secure communications, use SecureDrop.

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