The Full Truth Is Hard To Know
Doug Bernard | Washington DC
Five times a year, in cities as diverse as Prague, Washington, Brasilia, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur, thousands of buyers and sellers of electronic gear gather for a series of events that have come to be known as “The Wiretapper’s Ball.” On display are some of the most sophisticated electronic products available that allow for practically any kind of electronic surveillance, from monitoring and intercepting mobile phone calls to recording user’s web traffic and physically locating individuals to within a meter. The manufacturers are ready to sell, and the thousands of governments and other organizations that attend are eager to buy.
While many of the products are not for public discussion, their existence is hardly a secret. Writing in the Washington Post recently, reporters Sari Horwitz, Shyamantha Asokan and Julie Tate found over 35 U.S. government agencies registered to attend the Washington surveillance conference. They were only outnumbered by those peddling their high-tech wares:
“One German company, DigiTask, offers a suitcase-size device capable of monitoring Web use on public WiFi networks, such as those at cafes, airports and hotels. A lawyer representing the company, Winfried Seibert, declined to elaborate on its products. ‘They won’t answer questions about what is offered,’ he said. ‘That’s a secret. That’s a secret between the company and the customer.’”
But just who are those customers, and what kind of technology is being made available to governments around the world? Wiretapper Ball coordinator Jerry Lucas says clearly repressive governments such as Syria, Iran and North Korea are not allowed at the events, but that’s no guarantee these advanced technologies don’t wind up in those places.
There are no solid estimates for the size of the international surveillance industry. However it involves hundreds of firms – many based in the United States, Germany, Britain and Israel – and thousands of clients, including corporations, police forces and governments. Tracking where all that technology flows is tricky, and that’s raising alarms among human rights organizations. For example, following the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments, rebels documented advanced surveillance equipment used by those governments to monitor and track rebels’ online activities.
More recently, Internet monitors have learned that surveillance equipment from two U.S. firms, NetApp and Blue Coat Systems, have been installed and are being used by Syrian officials to unknown ends; U.S. Senators Robert Casey and Mark Kirk have requested an investigation. And last month the Italian tech firm Area SpA announced it was halting development of a surveillance project in Syria that, if finished, would have given Damascus “…the power to intercept, scan and catalog virtually every e-mail that flows through the country.”
In a new document release this week, the group Wikileaks has compiled a public database it calls “The Spy Files.” Sorted by factors such as manufacturer, year of contract and products offered, the “Spy Files” document what Wikileaks founder Julian Assange calls the unregulated spread of the “mass surveillance industry”:
“International surveillance companies are based in the more technologically sophisticated countries, and they sell their technology on to every country of the world. This industry is, in practice, unregulated. Intelligence agencies, military forces and police authorities are able to silently, and on mass [sic] .. secretly intercept calls and take over computers without the help or knowledge of the telecommunication providers. Users’ physical location can be tracked if they are carrying a mobile phone, even if it is only on standby.”
160 firms in all are listed in the “Spy Files,” along with brief specs of their products and details of some of their customers. There’s also a searchable map for further research.
And while it is illegal to sell high-tech equipment to those nations hit with sanctions, such as Iran or Burma, those sanctions are often a nation-by-nation patchwork, and no guarantee that some middleman won’t legally buy surveillance equipment from one firm, and then transfer it to a banned nation.
But privacy advocates want more, including a comprehensive global agreement that would heavily regulate who can buy what sort of equipment. Until then, however, the global surveillance market will likely remain healthy, if shadowy.
You can read more on the Wikileaks “Spy Files” here at Technorati, and here at Forbes. Also, the French media company OWNI has this deeper look at how Western-made surveillance equipment was used by the Gaddhafi government to spy on and track rebel activities. It’s well worth the read.
Finally, although you can’t attend, you can view the “Wiretapper’s Ball” ISS Mideast conference agenda online here.