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Privacy Activists Launch Database to Track Global Sales of Surveillance Tech

Privacy International's 'Surveillance Industry Index' keeps tabs on big brother.

The surveillance industry is notoriously secretive and opaque. But on Tuesday, activists at Privacy International released a searchable database on over 500 surveillance companies, including many of their brochures and export data.

"We're trying to compile a resource which will track all the open source accounts of what technology is being used where, and who it's provided by," Edin Omanovic, research officer at Privacy International, told Motherboard in a phone call.

The database is called the Surveillance Industry Index (SII), and can be queried by company name and city, type of product, different surveillance trade shows, and more. The idea, Omanovic said, is to give journalists, activists, researchers, and policymakers "a better understanding of what kind of products are out there, and what the actual industry looks like."

This is particularly important in regard to the sale of surveillance equipment to authoritarian regimes, or countries with a poor human rights record.

"In non-democratic and authoritarian systems, the power gained from the use of surveillance technologies can undermine democratic development and lead to serious human rights abuses"

Privacy International regularly sneaks into surveillance or military trade shows and obtains product brochures. The group has also collated and examined government-published export data, as well as media and NGO reports.

The top five countries represented in the SII are the US with 122 companies, the UK with 104, France and Germany with just over 40 each, and Israel with 27. In all, the SII covers 528 companies, and includes over 1500 brochures.

"Companies in the SII are overwhelmingly based in large arms exporting countries," the report notes. The report also indicates a boom in the industry at the turn of the 21st century, when dozens of new companies were created.

Graph showing a boom in new surveillance companies around the turn of the century. Image: Privacy International

That industry is incredibly varied, with companies selling everything from broad internet surveillance systems to hardware such as IMSI catchers, which can collect information such as text messages, or malware from companies such as Hacking Team.

Privacy International has also included where each company's or country's products have been found across the world. For example, Israeli intrusion software has turned up in Mexico and Panama, while the country's internet monitoring centres have been used in Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Uganda, and Uzbekistan.

In another case, the SII shows that Siemens, Trovicor, and other companies sold technology to Syria between 2007 and 2012.

As Privacy International writes in an accompanying report, "In non-democratic and authoritarian systems, the power gained from the use of surveillance technologies can undermine democratic development and lead to serious human rights abuses. Opposition activists, human rights defenders, and journalists have been placed under intrusive government surveillance and individuals have had their communications read to them during torture."

This isn't the first iteration of the SII. Privacy International had a similar database a few years ago, but pulled it offline when there was a bug in the Drupal content management system behind it. Now, the SII has been relaunched with the help of Transparency Toolkit, a group that has made searchable databases of intelligence community employees, as well as publicly released Snowden documents.