privacy

Privacy International begins tracking surveillance industry

Activist group Privacy International has launched an ambitious project to track the spread of commercial surveillance, spying and tracking technology and the often secretive firms selling into the booming sector.

Compiled from a variety of sources over the last four years, the Surveillance Industry Index includes 1203 documents covering 338 firms, 97 surveillance systems, and 36 countries, including some from the U.S. and U.K.

"This research was conducted as part of our Big Brother Incorporated project, an investigation into the international surveillance trade that focuses on the sale of technologies by Western companies to repressive regimes intent on using them as tools of political control," said Matt Rice of Privacy International in his introduction to the database. "What we found, and what we are publishing, is downright scary."

Validating 'legitimate' spies

The notion of "legitimate" surveillance has always been contentious, but the activities of a number of firms have recently raised the concern level a notch.

A good example would be U.K. software firm Gamma International and its FinFisher spyware, sold to law enforcement and governments across the world, allegedly including some trying to suppress protest in Arab states.

spying privacy surveillance

Security firms have detected FinFisher on computers across the world, and it is no surprise that Gamma is one company featured prominently on the Surveillance Industry Index.

Another is Italy's spyware writers Hacking Team, last week exposed by Mac antivirus firm Intego for its introduction of a new version of the multi-platform Da Vinci rootkit.

Officially, these programs are legitimate because they are used by police forces to monitor crime targets but the potential for abuse is obvious. Security firms mark FinFisher and Da Vinci as malware because from the point of view of anyone infected by them that is what they are.

"Because of the freedom to exist largely in the shadows, members of the private surveillance industry have gained a sense of impunity," Rice said. "By its very nature, mass surveillance is neither necessary nor proportionate, meaning that these technologies enable the violation of human rights, particularly the right to privacy and freedom of expression."

Raising awareness

In 2012, Privacy International complained to the U.K. government about exports of surveillance systems by U.K. companies to repressive regimes in contravention of the terms of the 2002 Export Control Act.

More recently, the organization joined with four others to urge the United Nations General Assembly to adopt a new resolution against indiscriminate mass surveillance.

It has also challenged the British government's participation in the NSA’s Prism program.

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