Saturday, December 3, 2011

Global surveillance supermarket offered to dictators

The ease with which totalitarian regimes can buy western technology to intercept and store every electronic communication made by their citizens has been revealed in a joint document release by Wikileaks, the pressure group Privacy International and several media organisations.
Posted online today, the tranche of 287 documents details the wide choice of cellphone and internet surveillance technologies on offer from 160 intelligence contractors - and show, in part, that dissidents using common tools like Google's gmail service, or devices like Apple's iPhone and RIM's BlackBerry, stand little chance of hiding their missives from authoritarian regimes - unless they know how to use the Tor anonymising network.
Many of the surveillance firms appear to be operating in two distinct ways: offering technologies that adhere to legal surveillance norms in their home markets - but when it comes to selling to other nations, they adopt an "anything goes" approach to interception functionality. Some of the them, says Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, will even tap the global network of undersea telecommunications cables to harvest traffic going into and leaving a nation.
The data has been gathered by researchers like Eric King at London-based Privacy International, who has been examining the wares on offer at arms fairs and surveillance industry conferences - many of which have been platforms for selling the kind of bulk email interception technology shown to have been used by the dictators recently ousted in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.
A French company called Amesys, for example, was found to have helped Libya's late dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, monitor dissidents' webmail accounts - because it left their names in a poorly-redacted screenshot in a PDF of a sales document. "There are no rules to stop a company in a democratic country selling such software to a dictator," said Jean Marc Manach of OWNI, one of the media groups that worked with Wikileaks, speaking at the release event today. "This has to stop."
Calls for overseas sales of surveillance technology to be restricted are growing. Two bills have been proposed to limit such exports in the US, where the Washington Post today reported that a trade show for vendors peddling such technologies has earned the nickname the "Wiretappers' Ball". And in India, N Ram, editor-in-chief of The Hindu newspaper, wants to see "a legal framework" established to control "the large passive interception of communications that's been going on in India since the Mumbai attacks."

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