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Monitoring centres receive, process and retain data collected by a variety of surveillance systems as a comprehensive intelligence solution. Typical surveillance systems include internet monitoring, location monitoring, phone monitoring, and audio and video surveillance. The unparalleled ability of monitoring centres to intrude in private life lies in the scale of the data intercepted and the multiplicity of the networks monitored. Once collected, this data is analysed by powerful computers that display connections between people, their conversations and events, and build profiles of individuals and their contacts: interest in an individual snowballs into interest in their contacts and then those individuals’ contacts. Advancements in digital storage capacities have allowed for indefinite retention of data and no practical limit to the amount of records collected daily. Modern monitoring centres are crucial in this ability for blanket surveillance and are force multipliers for intelligence agencies worldwide.
Monitoring centres use physical probes deployed across and between various networks to intercept data. These probes can be integrated within existing service provider systems and CCTV video monitoring systems, deployed at network nodes where key data passes through and placed between communicating systems. Interception typically occurs across three main networks: packet switched, circuit switched and the base station subsystem. Packet switched networks— used in all Internet communication— route data broken into small packets to their destination where they are reassembled into their original format (messages, emails, images, files, etc.). Circuit switched networks, the network that home telephone lines and fibre-optic communication use, establish a dedicated connection between successive nodes for the duration of the communication transmission. Mobile phones transmit and receive all communications through radio waves. To ensure that the communication is transmitted to the recipient with sufficient quality, the radio waves are passed through the base station subsystem, which transmits the communication to the appropriate switched network. The base station subsystem is in part comprised of transceivers (devices that receive radio waves and convert them into an alternating current) and antennas (devices that convert the alternating current into radio waves). Probes can be deployed at multiple points throughout this network.
Monitoring centres can receive all data collected from these probes both actively and passively. Active interception targets specific individuals using identifiers such as IP addresses or unique signatures. It can also entice the signal towards the point of interception. Passive interception collects all information transmitted through the network indiscriminately. When a passive interception probe is deployed at a service provider all traffic that is sent through the network– even calls or emails sent to another service provider– is collected. Passive interception probes are designed to be invisible, meaning that the probe can avoid detection and the service provider would not know it is in operation.
After the information is intercepted it is transmitted to the monitoring centre for processing. The multiplicity of surveillance technology inputs results in monitoring centres having access to many information sources. As seemingly disparate sources of information are connected, the utility of information increases; monitoring centres can exploit this to generate a full profile of an individual, incorporating and linking every intimate detail of their personal life. These profiles are neatly categorised and connected to each other, building a model of all interactions and possible intentions of and between groups and individuals. These actions are automated by computer systems and require little human input. The end result is an all-encompassing platform including millions of categorised records that can be searched in seconds.
Digital storage costs have rapidly decreased along with the size of storage devices. In the past storing large amounts of data was prohibitively expensive. Now, intelligence agencies can store zettabytes of data. As the scale of information available for analysis increase, the scope for abuse does as well. The surveillance company VASTech provided Colonel Gadhafi’s despotic regime with a technology that captured “30 to 40 million minutes of mobile and landline conversations a month and archived them for years”. This storage capability allows the agencies that use monitoring centres to have the capability of reaching far back into an individual’s past and scrutinizing every detail. In the absence of technical storage limitations, a balanced policy framework for limiting data retention is required. Unfortunately, this remains to be seen.
Companies providing monitoring centres and associated services can rapidly enable despotic regimes to suppress opposition. These companies provide engineers to States lacking technical skills to set up the system and training guides to facilitate use. This ease of implementation again indicates that the barriers of technical sophistication and cost are diminishing. Export controls such as the Wassenaar Arrangement, which could potentially limit the export of embodiments of monitoring centre technology, place an emphasis on international security and are devoid of any human rights considerations. Given the wide scope of abuse with monitoring centres, the ease at which they can be used and the wide range of companies providing them, balanced regulations are required that better reflects the need for protection of many parties monitored and their rights that are threatened by this technology.