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    Mass Surveillance Is Big Business: Corporations Are as Good at Spying as Governments

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    Photo via _bunn_/Flickr

    Data is the currency of surveillance, and it's not just the NSA and GCHQ looking to cash in. As a newly released cache of documents and presentation materials highlights, the private surveillance industry is booming. More shocking is that many firms claim in their own corporate PowerPoints that they've got capabilities that rival that of the government giants.

    The document trove, called the Surveillance Industry Index (SII) and released by Privacy International, and contains 1,203 documents from 338 companies in 36 countries, all of which detail surveillance technologies. Some advertised capabilities are astounding: A firm named Glimmerglass, which produces monitoring and repair equipment for undersea cables, touts in a brochure that its equipment enables "dynamic selection and distribution of signals for analysis and storage."

    Another firm, Elaman, advertises its line of FinFisher IT intrusion products in another brochure. It reads like any other brochure for tech products, with Elaman stating that the "FinFisher product suite [aids] government agencies in collecting critical IT information from target computers." The system is designed for anyone to use, the company says; all users have to do is insert a USB dongle into a target computer and, after a "short period of time," it will "extract information like usernames and passwords, e-mails, files, and other critical system and network information from Windows systems."

    That private companies are developing advanced data-gathering and monitoring technology should come as no surprise, especially when the NSA's reliance on private contractors in the development of its own surveillance tech is well documented. The surveillance industry, like many other sectors of the massive private industry that supports law enforcement and governments worldwide, is driving the state of the art forward. But what is surprising is how open the industry actually is.

    As Privacy International notes in its announcement of the SII, much of its documents are from its "collection of materials and brochures at surveillance trade shows around the world," as well as information from Wikileaks and Omega Research Foundation. Surveillance companies are businesses, too, and like weapons manufacturers who try to drum up business at major weapons expos like Sofex, the surveillance industry has its fair share of trade shows and glossy, superlative-laden promo materials.

    A screenshot from one linked document

    Of course, that world isn't open to average consumers, which is why SII—and previously, Wikileaks' Spy Files, among others—is eye-opening. What's even more concerning than systems that guarantee "complete data inflow from all networks" is who's buying it. And while all the brochures I've read so far are careful to specify that surveillance tech is only for legal data collection, "legal" is a very fluid term worldwide.

    Governments have increasingly relied on data collection to hold onto power, and as our own Meghan Neal detailed a few months ago, the surveillance needs of dictators continue to be served by American companies despite embargoes. During the Arab Spring, surveillance and internet control were major tools used by governments to try to control dissent; most recently, Sudan hit the internet kill switch in order to limit the spread of anti-government info online.

    The flip side of that control is preemptive surveillance and data collection. And while data-driven law enforcement is currently in vogue in the West—a privacy battle all its own—the capabilities available on the thriving private surveillance market are also available for regimes worldwide to crush encroachment in their power.

    There's a very good reason that the UN High Commissioner called privacy a human right earlier this year: The vast tools available to people with enough money and network access are more capable of accessing private information than ever before. And unless local laws say otherwise—what laws that haven't been circumvented or changed, that is—there's no oversight of what someone might monitor.

    "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," Matthew Rice, a research consultant with Privacy International, told The Guardian. "This market profits off the suffering of people around the world, yet it lacks any sort of effective oversight or accountability.

    So when a company advertises that its technology can rip phone call content straight off a cell network, it's doing so with a sense of agnosticism. A firm might not sell tech to some guy off the street, but when a guy like Moammar Gadhafi wants to pick up a bunch of surveillance tech, foreign markets say yes.

    Again, aside from economic embargoes and the like, the use of such technology is regulated by local laws, and spying on political rivals or everyday folks may be legal, depending on where it's used. It's a nice sentiment for firms looking to profit off of surveillance. But for private citizens worldwide, and especially those living under the most oppressive governments, the elimination of privacy is surely a dangerous trend.