Eric King of Privacy International, a London-based civil liberties organization, describes how journalists using Gmail should question whether they can legitimately protect their sources. British papers all use Gmail, which can be broken by all surveillance. He adds, if faced with an international challenge, Google will hand over data. He notes on-duty British soldiers abroad can be tracked by Skype and sim cards. And, he says the question is not whether you have a cell phone but rather whether you have a mobile tracking device that happens to make phone calls.

King is joined by Julian Assange, editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Jacob Appelbaum, a Tor project developer who has been targeted by the US for volunteering for WikiLeaks and Stephen Murdoch of Cambridge University and others, who are there for the unveiling of the latest project, “The Spy Files,” which Privacy International obtained and WikiLeaks is publishing. The project is the product of work with Bugged Planet, Privacy International and media organization from six countries (ARD in Germany, Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK, The Hindu in India, L’Espresso in Italy, OWNI in France and Washington Post in the US). It is the first project WikiLeaks has been involved in producing since Cablegate manically concluded in September.

The “Spy Files,” WikiLeaks states on its website, are hundreds of documents from as many as 160 intelligence contractors in the mass surveillance industry. This secret industry “has boomed since September 11, 2001 and is worth billions of dollars per year.” Companies in “technologically sophisticated countries” sell technology to “every country of the world.” It is not the case that “good Western countries” are just exporting to “bad developing world countries,” WikiLeaks cautions. Western intelligence agencies are being sold this surveillance technology too.

The “Spy Files” unearth details on the technology being sold to leaders, like dictators in the Middle East. King told the Washington Post sophisticated surveillance technology is facilitating detention, torture and execution and potentially smothering the flames of another Arab Spring.

This collection of brochures, manuals, contracts, presentations and catalogs can be broken down into four categories, which the Bureau for Invesitgative Journalism (TBIJ) details.

  1. Location Tracking – Surveillance companies peddle an IMSI catcher, “a popular mobile phone tracking technology” that can intercept mobile phones. TBIJ explains the “highly portable devices” can be “as small as a fist” and are capable of masking as a cell phone tower and emitting a signal that “can dupe thousands of mobile phones in a targeted area.” Users of this device “can then intercept SMS messages, phone calls and phone data.” Ability in Israel, Rohde & Schwarz in Germany and Harris Corp in the US are all companies that market this device. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also uses the device and says it can “without a court order.”
  2. Hacking – TBIJ finds many of the companies sell “Trojan” software and “phone malware that allows the user to take control of a target’s computer or phone.” Companies that offer technology that make this possible include the “Hacking Team of Italy, Vupen Security in France, Gamma Group in the UK and SS8 in the US each offer such products, which they variously claim can hack the Apple iPhone, BlackBerry, Skype and the Microsoft operating system.” Especially alarming, SS8 claims its “Intellego product allows security forces to ‘see what they see, in real time’ including a ‘target’s draft-only emails, attached files, pictures and videos.’ Elaman, according to TBIJ, “says governments can use its products to ‘identify an individual’s location, their associates and members of a group, such as political opponents’.”
  3. Massive Surveillance – US companies like Blue Coat Systems and Cisco Systems “offer corporate and government buyers technology to filter out certain websites.” They sell technology that can “monitor and censor an entire country’s data or telecommunications network.” TBIJ explains this captures “everyone’s activities” whether they are suspects or not. And, the information that is collected can be sifted through to see what is valuable.
  4. Data Analysis – Phone conversations, individuals’ locations and Internet traffic can all be captured with “sophisticated analysis tools” that intelligence agencies, the military and the police are using for criminal investigations and on the battlefield.

Highlighting the kind of electronic surveillance that goes on in countries like Syria, Appelbaum declares during the press conference, “There are people being murdered every day as a result of these surveillance devices.” He adds, “These are exactly the kinds of tools the Stasi wished to us” and strongly urges people to reject the idea of lawful interception. (Lawful interception is what these companies say they are doing to get away with selling spy technology.)

India is one of the biggest customers and producers of surveillance tools, says an editor of The Hindu. There are two major Indian players that use these devices and various state police forces are looking to begin using them as well. [For example, Indian company ClearTrail offers, ‘Total monitoring of all operators to plug any intelligence leakage is critical for government agencies.”]

Executives of companies that sell such equipment to countries and agencies all over the world argue that the communications are necessary for protecting against “bad guys.” The Washington Post says they are seen as being essential to tracking terrorists, investigating crimes and allowing employers to block pornography and restrict web sites in offices. That is how they are able to sell the technology to governments in the Middle East, which are some of the most “avid buyers” of the software and equipment.

The Washington Post reports many of the companies that sell the technology are “global suppliers.” They target law enforcement agencies and other government buyers. Additionally, the news publication finds, “Of the 51 companies whose sales brochures and other materials were obtained and released by WikiLeaks, 17 have secured U.S. government contracts in the last five years for agencies such as the FBI, the State Department and the National Security Agency, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal procurement documents.

Assange concludes the September 11th attacks have given countries a “license” to “develop spying systems that affect all of us.” Companies boast about holding databases on “entire populations.” We are now living in a “totalitarian surveillance state,” Assange declares. And the growth of this industry means investigative journalism in the national security sector is incredibly difficult to get away with and under threat. If normal people aim to win this war, they will have to use “counter technologies.”

This massive international surveillance industry that has grown and evolved over the past decade is a lucrative business. Laws have not been adapted to protect people’s privacy, as more and more governments employ this technology against their own citizens.

The tools these companies are using are not benign. Any citizen using these on other people to get information, when caught, would be under investigation for committing a crime.

At the press conference, it was announced that WikiLeaks is working to deal with the threat this industry poses to their organization. They are engineering a “next generation security system” that can accept submissions from whistleblowers and protect their identities from the tools being distributed and sold to governments by this industry.

For TBIJ’s complete coverage of the “Spy Files,” go here. Many will appreciate the guide to jargon that has been put together, which makes it possible for citizens to truly understand what is being said in these industry materials.

For a “Spy Files” map showing what tools countries are using from various companies, go here. And, stay tuned to The Dissenter for the latest updates on WikiLeaks and the “Spy Files.”


Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."