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Surveillance tools: Not just for spies now
A German company offers surveillance technology for use against political opponents.
In Russia, a startup company sells equipment to identify a single targeted voice in digital recordings of thousands of phone calls.
In China, a company boasts software that can crack the security on any Hotmail or Gmail account.
Welcome to the global marketplace for spy technology.
Specialized equipment and secret techniques that just a few years ago were the exclusive preserve of electronic government spy bureaus such as the U.S. National Security Agency are now available to the highest bidders from companies in dozens of countries.
The private companies offer equipment and services that can eavesdrop on cellphone calls, monitor Internet activity, tap into fiber-optic cable. The equipment then can search, filter and index the vast quantity of data obtained through all this surveillance.
Privacy advocates say there is nothing to stop foreign intelligence services from using the equipment to spy on their own people - or Americans.
“Even if American companies, as they claim, only sell to governments and law enforcement, there’s no real regulation of end-users, even in the United States, let alone China and Russia,” said Christopher Soghoian, an online privacy advocate and graduate fellow at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University.
“There’s nothing to stop [this equipment from] being used in the United States,” he added. “Sure it’s illegal … but you’re never going to get caught.”
He said cellphones can be monitored easily with a widely available device called an IMSI catcher because “almost all voice traffic is unencrypted.”
“What is being done to protect Americans from this technology?” asked Mr. Soghoian, “The answer is nothing.”
Privacy International, an advocacy group based in London with which Mr. Soghoian works, and the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks last week published a database of more than 130 companies worldwide that market Internet monitoring, phone interception, computer logging or other surveillance technologies. The database is the fruit of a yearlong investigation during which Privacy International and WikiLeaks investigators infiltrated technology sales conferences and obtained promotional materials.
India-based Paladion, which says it is “the fastest-growing information security company” in Asia, claims that its tools can track encrypted banking transactions and Gmail communication.
China Top Communications, a government-owned company based in Beijing, offers a package called Internet Watcher, which it claims can decrypt the secure Web connections used by Hotmail and Gmail email systems so users’ accounts can be monitored.
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