UK security sector warned over risk of selling to oppressive regimes

Government-backed guidance raises uncomfortable issues

For the first time ever, Government-backed guidance has warned the UK security sector to check in advance of selling products to foreign customers whether they will be used to carry out surveillance or infringe human rights.

In the document Assessing Cyber Security Export Risks the Government's Cyber Growth Partnership, industry body techUK and the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), draw attention to the ways in which security systems can be misused in ways that firms should no longer ignore in the hunt for export sales.

Until now the presumption has been that a security technology will be used for legitimate protection but from now on firms should carry out more careful due diligence or expose themselves to increased reputational and legal risk, the report said.

The document, based on the principles set out by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, is purely advisory but with official backing the policy message is clear - how a customer plans to use a product should be part of risk assessment going forward.

"Cyber security technologies have the potential to be misused. We need to prevent them falling into the wrong hands, leading to human rights abuses or the undermining of UK national security," said techUK's head of cyber justice and emergency services, Ruth Davis.

"Businesses have a responsibility to protect human rights and uphold national security. The Cyber Growth Partnership has produced this guidance to help UK companies fulfil this responsibility as they work for growth overseas."

The types of abuse mentioned in the document include the right to privacy, freedom of expression as well as fundamental tenets such as the right to life, freedom from arrest and unfair detention, and freedom from torture. In a number of countries security technology plays a key role in infringing all of these.

Firms should assess the legal safeguards in the country of sale, the use to which it will be put by the customer, its partners and resellers and if necessary build risk-driven clauses into any contract, the document said.

Probably the most extreme recent example of a British firm exporting security technology for use by oppressive regimes is Gamma International's FinFisher spyware software, allegedly used by numerous countries to spy on their citizens and the subject of several complaints. Considered malware by many security anti-virus firms, the software has no other use than to spy on citizens in a covert way.

The document even references this case without coming to any judgements about the fact that it would fall foul of the guidance on almost every level.

Going back further in time, a clutch of large US networking and security vendors were accused of selling their products to the Chinese Government to build its infamous Great Internet firewall despite knowing about that system's design and intention.

If the UK tech sector has had no official guidance on best practice until now, it's not clear that all firms would have welcomed something with the potential to stunt sales. Increasingly, however, exporters will be held to account legally, something the naming and shaming of FinFisher case underlines.

"We want British companies to take the lead on protecting human rights and driving innovation in cyber security," said Davis.

"The advice in this document is designed to help companies reduce reputational risk and to have confidence in the deals they make. We believe that ethical business practice is key; human rights and a vibrant British cyber sector are two sides of the same coin."

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