Private Eyes

Private Eyes

Surveillance industry is learning to infiltrate tech devices, and making billions

Are world governments watching us while we’re online? Listening to our phone calls? The whistleblower website WikiLeaks released 287 documents on Dec. 1 that described services offered by scores of private “intelligence contractors” to infiltrate computers and conduct mass surveillance. “Intelligence agencies, military forces and police authorities are able to silently … and secretly intercept calls and take over computers without the help or knowledge of the telecommunication providers,” WikiLeaks stated on its website.

An Italian company mentioned in the documents, HackingTeam, creates Trojan horses that can intercept encrypted Skype conversations and remotely infect smartphones. The company boasts that its systems can monitor “hundreds of thousands of targets” at a time and are “used daily to fight crime in all the five continents.” DigiTask, a German firm, builds software and mobile devices that can spy on emails and track activity at Wi-Fi hotspots.

The Wall Street Journal in November published online a “Surveillance Catalog” that includes brochures from 36 such companies, obtained from a surveillance conference held near Washington, D.C., earlier in the year. The private surveillance industry has boomed into a multibillion-dollar business, and although intelligence contractors generally insist they abide by export laws, their technologies have been found in use by oppressive regimes in countries such as China, Egypt, Libya, and Syria.

Some systems reportedly enable government agencies to activate webcams and microphones in order to spy on a computer user in his or her home. Companies sometimes hype their products, of course, but we can be glad we’re not the subjects of a Chinese or Middle Eastern government crackdown.

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