Nestled in a nondescript industrial park in the north Jutland town of Nørresundby is one of Denmark’s most controversial tech exporters. Not that their products are available to the average consumer, mind you. They sell cyber surveillance software to governments around the world, and they are good at it. So good that British weapons manufacturer BAE Systems bought the company for 1.2 billion kroner in 2010.
Following the sale, the company changed its name from ETI to BAE Systems Applied Intelligence, and continued its development into an export success story.
But after some dogged reporting, Information newspaper has revealed that BAE Systems has sold the company’s cyber surveillance technology to some of the most anti-democratic and authoritarian regimes in the world – with the written approval of the Danish government.
“I fear that the equipment has been used to suppress the democratic opposition that Denmark should be actively supporting,” stated Nikolaj Villumsen, foreign affairs spokesperson for the Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten), in a press release.
“We cannot combat hate and extremism in the Middle East if we in Denmark and the West are helping the repressive regimes of Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar, which are notorious for exporting extreme Islamism.”
Bypassing the censors
In principle, Denmark should not be able to export cyber surveillance software to these countries. Following the Arab Spring, leaked documents revealed how European surveillance software had been used by regimes in the Middle East, including Egypt and Tunisia, to suppress dissent and disrupt pro-democratic movements.
New EU rules introduced on December 31, 2014, were designed stop the sale to authoritarian regimes of so-called dual-use cyber surveillance software – tools that could have both civilian and military applications. The Danish Business Authority (Erhvervsstyrelsen) must now approve all export licences in order to ensure the software is not being sold to governments that would use it to spy on their populations.
Even after the new rules were implemented, however, Erhvervsstyrelsen still approved 14 export licences for cyber surveillance software to non-EU countries. The revelation was made last year by Information newspaper thanks to freedom of information requests, though Erhvervsstyrelsen censored the identities of the intended recipients. Through a bit of digital trickery, however, Information was able to see through the censored lines to deduce that one of the recipients was the United Arab Emirates – a country with a powerful security apparatus known for silencing political opposition.
The permit allowed BAE Systems to sell surveillance and data analysis systems to the United Arab Emirates for use in “national security and the investigation of serious crimes.” Specifically, the software allows the user to extract metadata and content such as audio, video, messages and attached files, and is also capable of outlining an individual’s social network. According to Information, the software allows for mass and indiscriminate surveillance of an entire population.
Information then teamed up with the BBC to try and discover the remaining clients, and revealed in June that Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar had also purchased software from BAE Systems Applied Intelligence. The licences were for the same software sold to the UAE, which could easily be used to suppress political activity.
Ministers to answer to Parliament
Following the revelations, opposition parties Enhedslisten and The Alternative (Alternativet) called for a parliamentary consultation – now scheduled for the autumn – with business minister Brian Mikkelsen and foreign minister Anders Samuelsen, whose ministries were involved in approving the export licences.
“I will use all the parliamentary tools at my disposal to stop these exports – and to identify the authorities and politicians responsible,” stated Alternativet’s peace and defence spokesperson René Gade in a press release.
Business minister Mikkelsen has defended the export licences, saying that the Foreign Ministry found no reason to oppose the export licences in its assessment of the potential human rights impacts of the exports to the Middle Eastern regimes requested by Erhvervsstyrelsen.
“[The Foreign Ministry] has the greatest expertise in evaluating the state of human rights. That is not something we determine in the Ministry of Industry, Business and Financial Affairs,” he told Information.
Asked whether there was a risk that a state like Saudi Arabia could potentially use the technology to persecute political dissidents, the minister answered that he “did not know anything about that.”
“That is why we have a system in place in which we ask the opinion of the Foreign Ministry. They are the experts,” he said.
The freedom of information requests also uncovered email correspondence between Erhvervsstyrelsen and the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). A senior UK civil servant wrote to Erhvervsstyrelsen that if the BAE Systems export application were submitted in the UK, it would be denied due to national security concerns.
Mikkelsen does not see any problem in the way the government has managed BAE Systems’ exports, but he does want to have a look at the “grey areas” connected with exporting this kind of technology to potentially oppressive regimes.
“The rules in Denmark, at the EU level and on a global level are not crystal clear in this area. Of course we should not export technology that can be used to violate human rights. But with new technology, there are some grey areas. And that is where we need to try to look – where we can get better at finding those grey areas,” he told Information.
Mikkelsen did not divulge what concrete initiatives might be needed on a national, EU or global level, saying that he needed to consult his colleagues in government.
Lack of political will
Claus Juul, a judicial consultant at Amnesty International, condemned the exports.
“Allowing Danish companies to sell mass surveillance equipment to countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman – states that have been watching their populations for years and who have brutally crushed any potential criticism of their anti-democratic, oppressive regimes – means we are helping despots and dictators hold their people in an iron grip and preventing any real democratic opposition from emerging in these countries. It is equivalent to selling arms to criminal regimes, knowing that these regimes will turn those arms on their own people,” he says.
Juul adds that legally binding agreements should be made in the UN and the EU to prohibit the sale of surveillance systems to oppressive regimes.
“Furthermore, nation-states such as Denmark should make sure that national legislation is in place to ensure that the authorities – such as Erhvervsstyrelsen – can administer said legislation and actually enforce the rules, and not just see an opportunity for lucrative export. It is not like Erhvervsstyrelsen did not know that Saudi Arabia is a deeply repressive state that could be expected to use technology like this in aid of a dark cause.”
Andrew Smith, media co-ordinator for the organization Campaign Against Arms Trade, agrees.
“There are always serious questions to be asked about the sale of surveillance equipment, particularly when it is to repressive regimes and those with appalling human rights records. This equipment could be used to intimidate or abuse activists. If these regimes cannot be trusted to observe the rights and liberties of their own citizens, then they should not be trusted with surveillance equipment that can be used against them,” he says, adding that the issue cannot necessarily be fixed with more legislation.
“In a lot of cases, European countries have export criteria that should stop the sale of weapons and dangerous equipment to human rights abusers. Very often the main problem is a lack of political will. Governments that arm and support oppressive regimes are complicit in the abuses that they carry out. Campaigners need to do all we can to expose the dangers of the trade and mobilise public opposition to it.”
The sale of Danish surveillance software to Middle Eastern regimes – which is thought to have started long before BAE Systems acquired ETI in 2011 – could have actively undermined Denmark’s own efforts to support democracy in the region.
“These intelligence agencies have systematically watched and persecuted human rights activists in a number of very authoritarian countries, so it is close to certain that the technology will be used for exactly that purpose,” said former diplomat and author Mogens Blom in an interview on the P1 radio show Orientering.
“What is ironic – and regrettable – is that one of the main goals of the Danish-Arab Partnership Program (DAPP) is to promote Denmark’s image and the view of Denmark as a democratic and inclusive society. And with something like this, you risk promoting a very different image of Denmark.”
The Foreign Ministry launched DAPP in 2003, which has had an annual budget of 275 million kroner since 2012. Its stated goals include “[supporting] the reform and democratization processes in the Middle East and North Africa” and “building on the existing and important partnerships between Arab and Danish organizations that are working together to strengthen human rights, media and women’s position in society, among other things.”
For example, an article on the DAPP website from January 2014, “The fight for a free and fair press in Tunisia”, outlines the oppressive tactics used by the Tunisian government to silence the media. According to the Tunisian Centre of Press Freedom, security services were responsible for 69 physical assaults on journalists.
Weeks earlier, in December 2013, a DR2 documentary reported on leaked documents that showed BAE Systems sold surveillance systems to Tunisia. Anonymous sources from inside the security services speaking to Information newspaper explained how the software was used by the dictator Ben Ali to suppress dissent before he was deposed in 2011.
“We focussed on all political opponents – there were no preferences. Everyone needed to be watched. Ben Ali wanted to know who his friends and enemies were. We had to inform on even sarcasm and jokes. All the politicians who are now in power were under surveillance.” M