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Exposing international arms trade and surveillance


A Leeds Beckett academic’s research exposing international arms trading and surveillance has been highlighted for its extensive impact by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Weapons at an arms fair

Dr Steve Wright’s research into security and surveillance uncovered the scale of trade in arms and control technologies, and exposed the global eavesdropping Echelon System – changing international regulation and policies. Steve is a Reader in the School of Social Sciences at Leeds Beckett.

The ESRC case study highlights a number of important developments as a result of Dr Wright’s work.

Dr Wright's research uncovered an emerging trade in security technologies used for social and political control. He set up the Omega Foundation in 1989, with colleagues, to develop a database from his original PhD research data.

The Omega report An appraisal of technologies of political control, authored by Dr Wright, exposed the global eavesdropping Echelon System run by the US National Security Agency. The report was featured in every major newspaper in the world, triggering debates in the European Parliament on electronic spying and public accountability, and leading to the formation of the parliament’s Echelon committee. It continues to inform the European Commission’s policy on security.

ECHELON interception system at Menwith Hill by Duncan Campbell

Echelon - image by Duncan Campbell

Recommendations from the follow-up Omega report Crowd Control Technologies changed European Commission policy on exports of torture and execution technology.

Dr Wright produced a policy report for UK police which led to the ban on electroshock devices under the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997.

He assisted in formulating new EU-wide policy on the use of security technologies which is adopted by all EU member states, and new rules on societal and ethical impact assessments for future security technologies which inform all EU security funding bids.

Prince Andrew giving away 70 tanks to the King of Jordan

Prince Andrew giving away 70 tanks to the King of Jordan the day before the last Gulf war

For over three decades, Dr Wright has researched the spreading of technologies of political control and human rights violation. His PhD thesis at Lancaster University, funded by an ESRC (then SSRC) grant, was on 'New Police Technologies and Sub-State Conflict Control'. The thesis documented innovations and trade in new technologies for social and political control, including advanced surveillance, sub-lethal weapons systems and torture technologies.

Dr Wright built on the research to set up the Omega Research Foundation with colleagues, to further develop the database of companies he had created for his thesis. The aim was to gather sufficient data to quickly identify any technology found at the scene of a violation and connect it to a specific company.

Weapons at an arms fair

Inside Interarms - Once the World’s largest Private Small Arms company Based in Manchester

Key analysis from the thesis was used to formulate the internationally influential 1998 Omega report An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control, produced for the European Parliament's Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA), which began the European and US debate on the National Security Agency's Echelon System surveillance.

Dr Wright has since left the Omega Research Foundation, but his findings have played a significant role in bringing about changes in how the trade is regulated and controlled by governments globally.

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