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Governments using hacking techniques to spy on citizens

By David Edwards
Wednesday, November 2, 2011 10:16 EDT
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Many governments are now conducting domestic surveillance using the same techniques employed by hackers, according to a new report.

The Guardian revealed Tuesday that law enforcement and intelligence agencies from governments across the world came to the Intelligence Support Systems (ISS) World Americas last month where they were offered the latest spying technology to use against their own citizens.

The conference, which is off-limits to the public and the media, featured technology to intercept cell phones, skype, and email. GPS tracking and traditional hacking were also popular products.

Conference sponsor Gamma International was recently found to have offered virus software to former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. The “IT intrusion” technology would have allowed the regime to intercept all communication of activists by infecting their computers. It’s not clear if Mubarak ever deployed the virus.

“There’s now a thriving outsourced surveillance industry and they are there to meet the needs and wants of countries from around the world, including those who are more — and less — respectful to human rights,” Surveillance expert Chris Soghoian told The Guardian.

Soghoian was fired from his job at the Federal Trade Commission in 2009 after he released recordings of the secret conference.

“When there are five or six conferences held in closed locations every year, where telecommunications companies, surveillance companies and government ministers meet in secret to cut deals, buy equipment, and discuss the latest methods to intercept their citizens’ communications – that I think meets the level of concern,” he explained. “[D]ecades of history show that surveillance powers are abused – usually for political purposes.”

Another firm at the conference, Italian surveillance developer Hacking Team, has sold technology to at least 30 governments that they say cannot be detected by anti-virus scanners. It can be used to simultaneously monitor more than 100,000 targets.

“Information such as address books or SMS messages or images or documents might never leave the device,” Hacking Team founding partner David Vincenzetti explained. “The only way to get it is to hack the terminal device, take control of it and finally access to the relevant data.”

Late last month, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called on software companies to implement a framework to prevent selling surveillance technology to authoritarian regimes.

“Companies selling surveillance technologies to governments need to affirmatively investigate and ‘know your customer’ before and during a sale,” they recommended.

“Companies need to refrain from participating in transactions where their ‘know your customer’ investigations reveal either objective evidence or credible concerns that the technologies provided by the company will be used to facilitate human rights violations.”

The president of the company that organizes ISS World contends that surveillance firms should be able to sell to repressive regimes if they want.

“The surveillance that we display in our conferences, and discuss how to use, is available to any country in the world,” TeleStrategies Jerry Lucas insisted. “Do some countries use this technology to suppress political statements? Yes, I would say that’s probably fair to say. But who are the vendors to say that the technology is not being used for good as well as for what you would consider not so good?”

“That’s just not my job to determine who’s a bad country and who’s a good country. That’s not our business, we’re not politicians … we’re a for-profit company. Our business is bringing governments together who want to buy this technology.”

David Edwards
David Edwards
David Edwards has served as an editor at Raw Story since 2006. His work can also be found at Crooks & Liars, and he's also been published at The BRAD BLOG. He came to Raw Story after working as a network manager for the state of North Carolina and as as engineer developing enterprise resource planning software. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidEdwards.
 
 
 
 
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