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Big Brother, Inc.: The Surveillance Industrial Complex

Guardian exclusive exposes private firms selling NSA-level spy technology to repressive regimes

Lauren McCauley, staff writer

Not wanting to leave anyone out of the spy game, a Guardian exclusive revealed Monday that private firms are peddling the latest in surveillance technologies to smaller governments and regimes interested in conducting NSA-level operations on their own citizenry.

Research watchdog Privacy International has compiled an online database entitled the Surveillance Industry Index (SII) which documents how private firms offer governments a "range of systems that allow them to secretly hack into internet cables carrying email and phone traffic."

According to the report, hawking these technologies with brochures and sales pitches at "private trade fairs," the largely-Western firms specifically target "repressive regimes" from nations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East offering them the same "powerful capabilities" as the NSA and GCHQ as a means of "political control."

"What we found, and what we are publishing, is downright scary," writes Matthew Rice, research consultant with Privacy International.

He adds that a number of the products revealed in the SII have been used to target pro-democracy activists, journalists and political opposition. Further, he notes that the firms frequently maintain "relationships" with the regimes by "upgrading their systems" and making customer service representatives available "for dictators and their cronies should anything go awry with their products."

"By its very nature, mass surveillance is neither necessary nor proportionate, meaning that these technologies enable the violation of human rights, particularly the right to privacy and freedom of expression," continues Rice. "With the opportunity of mass interception and mass retention at its fingertips, governments are being outfitted with enormous powers, meaning that the technologies are ripe for abuse."

The firms boast capabilities as varied as social network monitoring, voice analysis, mass communication interception and other "James Bond-style" spy gear.

The Guardian reports:

Overall, the index has details from 338 companies, including 77 from the UK, offering a total of 97 different technologies which cover vast spectrum.

One firm says its "massive passive monitoring" equipment can "capture up to 1bn intercepts a day".


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Others offer the latest James Bond-style paraphernalia, including cameras hidden in cola cans, bricks, children's carseats and boxes of tissues. One manufacturer customises car or vans, turning them into state-of-the art mobile surveillance control centres.

The research was done as part of Privacy International's Big Brother Incorporated project, which is an ongoing investigation into the international surveillance trade. They are hoping the Index brings to light the complicity of private surveillance firms in this form of repression.

"There is a culture of impunity permeating across the private surveillance market, given that there are no strict export controls on the sale of this technology, as there on the sale of conventional weapons," said Rice. "This market profits off the suffering of people around the world, yet it lacks any sort of effective oversight or accountability."

Reporting on a number of the firms in question, the Guardian writes:

The documents include a brochure from a company called Advanced Middle East Systems (AMES), which is based in Dubai.

It has been offering a device called Cerebro, which is a DIY system similar to the Tempora programme run by GCHQ - which taps information from fibre-optic cables carrying internet traffic.

AMES describes Cerebro as a "core technology designed to monitor and analyse in real time communications … including SMS (texting), GSM (mobile calls), billing data, emails, conversations, webmail, chat sessions and social networks."

The company brochure makes clear this is done by attaching probes to internet cables. "No co-operation with the providers is required," it adds.

Privacy International analysts reportedly went undercover, posing as potential buyers, to gain access to the spy conventions which were held in Dubai, Prague, Brasilia, Washington, Kuala Lumpur, Paris, and London.


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