Stephen Harper involved in company looking to arrange sale of surveillance tech to UAE

Former prime minister Stephen Harper heads the advisory board of a Toronto-based company now looking to facilitate the sale of cutting-edge surveillance technology to the United Arab Emirates — a country with a troubling human rights record.

Critics raising red flags over the United Arab Emirates' troubling human rights record

Former prime minister Stephen Harper and the UAE's de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed, meet in Abu Dhabi in December, 2019. On Twitter, Harper called the Emirates “a remarkable nation” and the Crown Prince a “friend and great leader." (Twitter @stephenharper)

Former prime minister Stephen Harper heads the advisory committee of a Toronto-based company now looking to facilitate the sale of cutting-edge surveillance technology to the United Arab Emirates — a country with a troubling human rights record.

AWZ Ventures finances Israeli surveillance technology systems, including facial recognition and crowd detection systems and services that deliver comprehensive information on individuals in real time.

The prospect of such technologies being offered to a country with a history of human rights abuses is being condemned by international cyberthreat and human rights experts in Canada, the U.K. and Israel.

Harper is a major player in this investment firm, serving as president of its advisory committee — which is composed of former members of the Mossad and other Israeli and American intelligence agencies, among others.

He is also a business partner with the firm, which has investments in 18 Israeli cybersecurity companies, according to its website.

Israeli tech company viisights, which has received financing from AWZ Ventures, has developed real-time behavioural recognition systems to track, among other things, crowd gatherings. (Vimeo)

AWZ Ventures is in the process of incorporating a subsidiary in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Former Canadian diplomat Katherine Verrier-Fréchette has been hired as managing director of this subsidiary, AWZ Horizons, which will be based in Abu Dhabi, UAE's capital.

Verrier-Fréchette has been working full time for AWZ since February 2021, according to her Linkedin account.

She also has been tasked by AWZ with facilitating the sale of cybersecurity technologies to other countries in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, and countries in North Africa.

Katherine Verrier-Fréchette was Canada's representative to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank when this photo of her with Governor of the Palestine Monetary Authority Azzam Shawwa was published in 2016. (Palestine Monetary Authority)

"The sale of cyber surveillance technologies to a country like the UAE is inherently problematic from a human rights perspective," said Siena Anstis, senior legal adviser to Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto research body focused on the study of digital threats.

AWZ Ventures defends its decision to do business with the United Arab Emirates.

In an email in response to Radio-Canada's questions, AWZ's co-founder and spokesperson Yaron Ashkenazi said the firm invests in "defensive security technologies which are designed so that they cannot be circumvented or reverse engineered for nefarious purposes."

Ashkenazi said his firm works "diligently" with its portfolio companies "to ensure they comply with the highest ethical and regulatory investment standards in Canada and other markets in which we operate."

Israeli tech company Corsight, an AWZ Ventures’ portfolio company, has developed a real-time facial recognition system that can identify people even when their faces are partially covered by masks. (CORSIGHT/YouTube)

'Very, very dangerous'

But one Israeli human rights lawyer said the UAE has used this kind of technology to control its population and block democratic reforms.

"It's very, very dangerous," said Eitay Mack, who has been calling on Israel to be more transparent when it comes to defence exports.

He said he finds it "very sad" that a former Canadian prime minister would associate himself with the sale of cyber-surveillance tech to the UAE.

"I think he should have done better things for humanity than to put his name and also his reputation as a Canadian prime minister (to this project)," said Mack. "It gives big legitimation to not only this project but also to the human rights violations in the UAE."

Harper and Verrier-Fréchette did not respond to Radio Canada/CBC's request for comments.

Ashkenazi said the commercial relationship between AWZ Ventures and the UAE is being established "in the spirit of the Abraham Accords" — peace treaties between Israel, the UAE and other Arab countries.

In April 2019, Stephen Harper tweeted a photo of himself with the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in Abu Dhabi celebrating their mutual birthday. (Twitter @stephenharper)

He added that his company has personnel on the ground "to ensure ethical operations."

Canada and the UAE have strong diplomatic and trade relations and share membership in international organizations, such as La Francophonie.

UAE accused of spying on journalists, activists

An international investigation led by 17 news agencies revealed this summer that the UAE and other repressive regimes were clients of the Israeli NSO Group, the developer of the Pegasus spyware, which can be installed covertly on mobile phones.

The investigation identified 1,000 phone numbers of potential targets for the Pegasus spyware, including political leaders, human rights activists and journalists in many parts of the world. The UAE has denied spying on these individuals.

In the past, Citizen Lab has reported that the UAE used spyware against one of its human rights defenders, Emirati blogger Ahmed Mansoor, who has been imprisoned since 2017.

In convicting Mansoor, courts in the UAE based their verdict on the Emirati cybercrimes law, which makes even the slightest criticism of authorities a criminal offence. Email exchanges and WhatsApp conversations with representatives of human rights organizations were used against him at trial, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

"Companies cannot plead ignorance," said lawyer Siena Anstis of Citizen Lab. "In the case of the UAE, there are multiple public examples of the government using and abusing cyber surveillance technology by deploying it against human rights actors and dissidents in violation of international human rights law."

No export permit required

In Canada, a company such as AWZ Ventures does not need an export permit to facilitate the sale of cybersecurity technology.

Only companies that facilitate the movement of military equipment, or items that can be used to produce weapons of mass destruction, need to obtain a broker permit.

"The regime governing this is totally stuck in the Cold War," said Edin Omanovic, advocacy director for the U.K.-based Privacy International, which advocates against the use of pervasive surveillance technologies.

Omanovic said the controls in place in Canada and many other countries focus on conventional weapons, excluding many types of surveillance tech.

Video surveillance was installed in all stores last year by the Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development and the Monitoring and Control Centre to ensure compliance with COVID-19 sanitary rules. (Twitter: Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development )

"Such controls are completely out of date and incapable of addressing the human rights risks posed by these emerging industries," he said.

The Israeli companies financed by AWZ Ventures that are producing the cybersurveillance technologies need to obtain export permits from the Israeli government.

But the Canadian government still has a responsibility under international law to ensure Canadian companies aren't undermining human rights abroad, said Mack.

"Maybe according to the regulations in Canada and the regulations in Israel, only the Israeli companies that actually sell the equipment have the direct legal obligations," he said. "But the Canadian government should be responsible for how finances are being transferred through Canadian companies and how it influences human rights."

Global Affairs Canada declined to comment on AWZ Ventures' business dealings.

In an email to Radio-Canada/CBC, however, the department said that "Canada has one of the most rigorous export control systems in the world, and respect for human rights is enshrined in our export control legislation."

The department also confirms that while some exports of cyber surveillance technologies require permits, companies that facilitate the sale of such technologies don't require authorization.


Brigitte Bureau is an award-winning investigative reporter with Radio-Canada.