Wikileaks cables shows the world it's being watched – always

Wikileaks has released documents which lift the lid on the shady world of the international surveillance industry – with a new project called Spy Files. Most of the companies involved operate in plain sight.

The whistle-blowing website highlighted a growing, billion dollar industry which so far has largely slipped under the radar. Wikileaks’ publicity should change this.

Companies specialising in surveillance equipment, in many cases to repressive regimes, have flourished as “mass interceptions of entire populations” has gone largely unchecked. It’s not just the usual culprits you’d expect, though, warns Wikileaks. The culture of Orwellian citizen espionage is everywhere.

According to Wikileaks, the “secret” industry already spans 25 countries. Technologically advanced countries in the west have been supplying monitoring tools to others throughout the world.

What is alarming, and what Wikileaks is trying to draw attention to, is that the industry is largely condoned by western governments.  Julian Assange’s site is attempting to highlight the scale of the industry and the endemic problems involved – such as a frightening lack of regulation among buyers.

This echoes calls in the US to tighten up laws which currently allow loopholes for firms to continue operating within.

Wikileaks has released a tranche of 287 documents detailing firms involved in flogging surveillance equipment to countries such as Libya. For example, Amesys, a French company was at the centre of a scandal having exported surveillance equipment to Gadaffi’s intelligence services. Amesys is amongst those in the documents leaked.

Others such as Alcatel-Lucent and Siemens also make an appearance. Nokia Siemens Networks has its woeful record featured after a subsidiary, sold to Trovicor, was found to have supplied monitoring equipment to repressive regimes.

More releases will become available through the Spy Files project this week and into the next year.

As Wikileaks points out, what is most shocking – other than the level which the industry operates – is that it is largely condoned.  

Of course, in England, Foreign Secretary William Hague has himself been linked to a firm involved in the industry, and there is a substantial grey area over what’s acceptable.

“This industry is, in practice, unregulated,” Wikileaks said. “Intelligence agencies, military forces and police authorities are able to silently, and on mass, and secretly intercept calls and take over computers without the help or knowledge of the telecommunication providers.”

According to Privacy International the industry is certainly cause for alarm. It welcomed Wikileaks’ latest releases.

“Privacy International has been investigating this lucrative and highly dangerous trade for over a year, and we are deeply concerned by what we have uncovered,” a spokesperson told TechEye.

“Technologies of mass surveillance that were unthinkable in their scope and audacity fifteen years ago are now commonplace, and companies have no qualms about selling them to oppressive regimes.

“The fact that these documents are now publicly available and that the surveillance industry has finally been exposed to general scrutiny is to be welcomed – but this is only the beginning. It is clear that this trade has been allowed to flourish almost completely unfettered by regulators and legislators for far too long.” 

The next task, says Privacy International, is to ensure surveillance technology companies are prevented from selling their dangerous wares to countries like Syria, Iran and Bahrain, and “that the development and use of this technology is properly regulated in the future.” 

Quite how much can be done to stamp out use of surveillance on a wider scale is unclear, says Paul Cronin, Technical Director at Pentura.

“It would be difficult to try and enforce a law preventing the sale of materials as there is a lot of grey area over intent,” Cronin told TechEye.  “Ultimately it comes down to the particular laws of a country.”

Cronin says there’s even open source software available. “To stop the sale of surveillance equipment is all but impossible,” Cronin continues. “Once the technology has been invented it can be reproduced quite easily in many cases.  

“This certainly applies to hardware too.  China, for instance, has the ability to easily manufacturer and reproduce technology once it becomes widely available.”

But inaction, at the very least, gives the impression that the repressive surveillance practices are condoned. Which, according to Wikileaks, they are.

In a statement, it said companies in the west are selling to western intelligence agencies, too. It’s a global problem. “Across the world, mass surveillance contractors are helping intelligence agencies spy on individuals and ‘communities of interest’ on an industrial scale,” it says, and it hopes the documents in the Spy Files will make clear just how much the ruling powers are watching.