Fri, Nov 22, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Selling Big Brother technology to governments is big business

Watchdog Privacy International spent four years building the Surveillance Industry Index, an online database of close to 400 firms that sell systems that allow governments to hack into Internet cables responsible for carrying e-mail and phone traffic

By Nick Hopkins and Matthew Taylor  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Privacy International hopes the Surveillance Industry Index will give academics, politicians and campaigners a chance to look at the type of surveillance technologies now available in the hope of sparking a debate about improved regulation.

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 program run by GCHQ — which taps information from fiber-optic cables carrying Internet traffic.

AMES describes Cerebro as a “core technology designed to monitor and analyze in real time communications … including SMS [texting], GSM [mobile calls], billing data, e-mails, conversations, Web mail, chat sessions and social networks.”

The company brochure makes clear this is done by attaching probes to Internet cables.

“No cooperation with the providers is required,” it adds.

“Cerebro is designed to store several billions of records — metadata and/or communication contents. At any time the investigators can follow the live activity of their target with advanced targeting criteria [e-mail addresses, phone numbers, key words].”

AMES refused to comment after being contacted by the Guardian, other than to say it followed similar protocols to other surveillance companies.

“We don’t want to interact with the press,” a spokesman said.

Another firm selling similar high-tech equipment is VAStech, based in South Africa, which has a system called Zebra.

Potential buyers are told it has been designed to help “government security agencies face huge challenges in their combat against crime and terrorism.”

VAStech says Zebra offers “access to high volumes of information generated via telecommunication services for the purposes of analysis and investigation.”

It has been designed to “intercept all content and metadata of voice, SMS, e-mail and fax communications on the connected network, creating a rich repository of information,” the firm says.

“VASTech produces products for governmental law enforcement agencies. These products have the primary goal of reducing specifically cross-border crimes such as child pornography, human trafficking, drug smuggling, weapon smuggling, money laundering, corruption and terrorist activities. We compete internationally and openly against several suppliers of similar systems,” a company spokesman said.

“We only supply legal governments, which are not subjected to international sanctions. Should their status change in this regard, we hold the right to withdraw our supplies and support unilaterally,” he said.

Ann McKechin, a Labour member of the British House of Common’s Arms Export Control Committee, said: “Obviously we are concerned about how our government provides licenses, given these new types of technology.”

“Software technology is now becoming a very large component of our total exports and how we police it before it gets out of country will become an increasingly difficult question and I think the government has to review its processes to consider whether they are fit for the task,” she said.

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