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Wikileaks release shows terrifying power of today's surveillance industry

At 12.45pm today, Wikileaks released hundreds of brochures, presentations, marketing videos and technical specifications exposing the inner workings of the international trade in surveillance technologies. Many of these documents were gathered by PI’s Eric King while undercover at industry-only conferences and trade shows in London, Paris and Washington DC.

Mr King joined Julian Assange, security researcher Jacob Appelbaum, Stefania Maurizi of Italian news weekly L’Espresso, Jean-Marc Manach of OWNI, Steven Murdoch of Cambridge University and Praveen Swami of The Hindu (via Skype) at a press conference at City University in London to discuss the release of the documents. The material is a devastating indictment of this secretive and highly dangerous industry. The equipment and software described includes:

  • Devices small enough to be carried in a rucksack or briefcase that masquerade as legitimate mobile phone base stations in order to intercept and decrypt SMS messages and phone calls from all mobile phones within a radius of several hundred metres (‘IMSI catchers’).
  • Malware and spyware that gives the purchaser complete control over a target’s computer while allowing the interception to remain undetected.
  • Trojans that, once installed in a mobile phone, allow the purchaser to remotely turn on the phone’s microphone and camera in order to record sound and take photographs of the phone’s location and user.
  • “Optical cyber solutions” for mass surveillance of entire populations, involving tapping the submarine cable landing stations that carry all communications traffic in and out of countries. These techniques were originally developed by the NSA in the 1990s, and until now have been a closely guarded secret.

Privacy International has been investigating the surveillance industry for over a year as part of our ‘Big Brother Incorporated’ project. We have seen representatives from certain companies pitch technologies so invasive that they were once the sole preserve of national intelligence agencies to low-level police officers. We have heard others boast about selling mass surveillance and censorship tools to the government of Bahrain. There are several known cases of people in the Middle East and North Africa coming to harm as a direct result of the use of Western-manufactured technology. In sum, it is clear that this trade has been allowed to flourish almost completely unfettered by regulators and legislators for far too long. 

Eric King, Human Rights and Technology Adviser at Privacy International, said:

The fact that these documents are now publicly available and that the surveillance industry has finally been exposed to general scrutiny is to be welcomed - but this is only the beginning. The next task is to ensure that surveillance technology companies are henceforth prevented from selling their dangerous wares to countries like Syria, Iran and Bahrain, and that the development and use of this technology is properly regulated in the future.