Private firms are selling spying tools and mass surveillance technologies to developing countries with promises that “off-the-shelf” equipment will allow them to covertly snoop on millions of e-mails, text messages and telephone calls, according to a cache of documents published on Monday.
The papers show how firms, including dozens from Britain, tout the capabilities at private trade fairs aimed at offering nations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, the kind of powerful capabilities that are usually associated with government agencies such as the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and its US counterpart, the National Security Agency (NSA).
The market has raised concerns among human rights groups and ministers, who are poised to announce new rules about the sale of such equipment from Britain.
“The government agrees that further regulation is necessary,” a spokesman for the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said. “These products have legitimate uses … but we recognize that they may also be used to conduct espionage.”
The documents are included in an online database compiled by the research watchdog Privacy International, which has spent the past four years gathering 1,203 brochures and sales pitches used at conventions in Dubai, Prague, Brasilia, Washington, Kuala Lumpur, Paris and London. Analysts had to go undercover to gain access to the private fairs by posing as potential buyers.
The database, called the Surveillance Industry Index, shows how firms from the UK, Israel, Germany, France and the US offer governments a range of systems that allow them to secretly hack into Internet cables carrying e-mail and phone traffic.
Overall, the index has details from 338 companies, including 77 from the UK, offering a total of 97 different technologies which cover a vast spectrum.
One firm says its “massive passive monitoring” equipment can “capture up to 1bn intercepts a day.”
Others offer the latest James Bond-style paraphernalia, including cameras hidden in soda cans, bricks, children’s car seats and boxes of tissues. One manufacturer customizes cars or vans, turning them into state-of-the art mobile surveillance control centers.
There is nothing illegal about selling such equipment and the companies say the new technologies are there to help governments defeat terrorism and combat crime.
However, human rights and privacy campaigners have become increasingly alarmed at the sophistication of the systems, and worry that unscrupulous regimes could use them as tools to spy on dissidents and critics.
Former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi is known to have used off-the-shelf surveillance equipment to clamp down on opposition leaders before his downfall.
Privacy International believes UK firms should now be subject to the same strict export licenses rules faced by arms manufacturers.
“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,” Privacy International research consultant Matthew Rice said. “This market profits off the suffering of people around the world, yet it lacks any sort of effective oversight or accountability.”
“This lack of regulation has allowed companies to export surveillance technology to countries that use their newly acquired surveillance capability to spy on human rights activists, journalists and political movements,” he said. “We desperately need export regulations placed on these surveillance technologies, and the public needs to pressure politicians and governments to act now.”