The Global Mass Surveillance Industry Exposed
In a press conference on 1 December, WikiLeaks and its partners announced the beginning of a release of hundreds of documents from as many as 160 private intelligence contracting firms developing technology for the surveillance industry. The initial release consists of 287 documents, with more to be released in the coming days and weeks. These documents, aquired in a collaborative effort by WikiLeaks, Privacy International, OWNI, and TBIJ, consist of brochures, catalogues, contracts, manuals, letters, papers, presentations, a pricelist, and a video, demonstrating the capabilities of cutting-edge technology for mass surveillance. Some of the documents had already been public, but the overwhelming majority is new material.
In this release, WikiLeaks organized a coalition consisting of the Bugged Planet project, Privacy International, and media organizations form six countries – ARD in Germany, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK, The Hindu in India, L’Espresso in Italy, OWNI in France and the Washington Post in the U.S. (Although the Wall Street Journal published a Surveillance Catalog a few weeks prior to the press conference, their material was from a conference held near Washington D.C. and is not a part of the Spy Files release).
The files shed light on the capabilities of the surveillance industry to employ mass surveillance techniques on large populations. Steven Murdoch, security researcher on privacy and anonymous communications at Cambridge University, evoked highlighted the indiscriminate nature of mass surveilance:
surveillance is frequently presented to the public as targeted monitoring of inividuals where there is strong suspicion of wrondoing and some sort of judicial oversight to prevent abuses. What these files show is that surveillance is increasingly wholesale monitoring of entire populations where there is no suspicion of wrongdoing.
Jacob Appelbaum, researcher at the University of Washington and developer at the Tor project, emphasized the human rights cost of a burgeoning, unregulated surveillance sector :
These systems, revealed in these documents, are systems the Stasi wish they could have built. If you remember the Stasi letter-opening machines, these the were “deep packet inspection machines” of the mail service. (…) These systems have been sold by western companies to places like Syria, Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. These systems are used to hunt people down and to murder them. There’s no question that these systems are used as weapons are used. These systems are sold with support contracts, with training and ongoing service, including software updates and individual targeting. (…) It took years for truth about IBM’s role in the holocost to come out. We don’t have to wait anymore, the evidence is here, and we can go after these companies by simply telling the truth about the things that they do and the harm that they’ve caused.
Stefania Maurizi, journalist from the Italian WikiLeaks media partner l’Espresso, described the importance of having real documentation from the surveillance industry:
We know that the more we use electronic communication, the more we have interception. But it is one thing to know [what's possible]; it is another thing to go through these documents and see what companies have written, what they are capable of… especially since this industry is totally outside public scrutiny.
Jean-Marc Manach, a French journalist at OWNI spoke on the French company Amesys which sold an online surveillance system called ‘Eagle’ to Gaddafi in 2006. Pratap Chatterjee from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Narasimhan Ram from The Hindu also spoke.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Privacy International partnered to launch an interface for searching for details on the companies in the Spy Files release. The partnership has also published a guide to surveillence industry keywords including digital forensics, deep packet inspection, social network analysis, data mining, backdoor trojans, open source intelligence and social media monitoring, webmail interception, speech and voice recognition, safe cities, IMSI catchers, facial recognition, and mobile monitoring.
Coverage from Spy Files media partners
TBIJ published an overview of Britain’s extensive surveillance industry. Companies such as the Gamma Group, QinetiQ, Datong and Detica have sold spyware and data collection systems around the world to countries including as Egypt, Indonesia, and Thailand. Another article discusses how the UK Government Communications HQ approved a sale of software from Creativity Software to MTN Irancell for geographic tracking of mobile phones. Since the Iranian regime controls 51% of MTN Irancell, the sale of such tracking systems is alarming for the potential of the government to monitor any of its citizens.
The Hindu discusses leaked literature from the French company Amesys, which boasts that its massive interception system “is designed to answer to the need of interception and surveillance on a scale of nation” and handling “some terrabytes to tens of perabytes” of data. And although Amesys does not have an office in India, an Amesys brochure says that it has technology to automatically recognize languages including Hindi and Tamil and then “turn from voices captured on hard disk into transcribed text.” Amesys sold an online surveillance system, the ‘Eagle’ to Gaddafi in 2007. OWNI reports on an Amesys draft manual which contains a screenshot of the emails of several prominent London-based Libyan dissidents. The manual emails raise questions about the surveillance capabilities of the Eagle, and whether it was used to spy on people in the UK who had even minimal contact with people in Libya.
While surveillance and interception of telecommunications in the West is controlled to a certain extent by legal obligations, companies are free to sell their equipment to abroad, as their tools are not considered weapons. OWNI’s introduction to the Spy Files quotes Jerry Lucas, President of TeleStrategies – which organizes the Intelligence Support Systems (ISS) expo bringing together surveillence technology professionals – justifying the sale of such systems:
The surveillance systems that we discuss in our seminars are available all around the world. Do some countries use them to suppress certain political statements? Yes, probably. But it’s not my job to sort out who are the good and bad countries. That’s not our business, we’re not politicians.
Our business is to connect those who want to buy these technologies with those who sell them. You can sell cars to the Libyan rebels, and those cars could be used as weapons. Should General Motors and Nissan ask how their vehicles will be used? Why don’t you go asking questions to the car companies? It’s the free market. You can’t stem the flow of surveillance equipment.
The Washington Post reports on how Lucas’ ISS confrerence grew from an attendance of just 35 people in 2002 into 5 yearly events drawing thousands of people worldwide.
Impact and Reactions
Privacy International is furthering the Spy Files release with investigation and followup legal action:
…we have been scrutinizing the network of European companies supplying surveillance equipment, software and technical expertise to the Syrian secret services [sic]. We are also in the process of building strategic litigation against some of the Western companies complicit in human rights abuses by governments and intelligence agencies across the Middle East and North Africa.
Annie Machon, former MI5 agent and whistleblower, responded to the Spy Files release with an analysis of the intelligence industry which is now linked with corporate spying around the world.
Reporters Without Borders issued a statement in support of the Spy Files release, and urged governments to take steps to regulate the sale of surveillance technology in countries where it could be used for abusing human rights and freedom of expression.
These new revelations by WikiLeaks provide confirmation and better documentation of the disgraceful cooperation between western companies and authoritarian regimes, which are being buffeted by the waves from the Arab Spring and want to control their dissidents at all costs.
By equipping oppressive regimes and giving them the means to track and arrest cyber-dissidents and human rights activists, these companies become the accomplices of serious crimes. It is time to end the impunity they enjoy and to impose financial sanctions on them.