Today Wikileaks is set to release around 1,100 documents, brochures and manuals for products and technology sold by companies relating to systems for surveillance and interception of telecommunications. What is being revealed is an industry centred on surveillance, spying and intelligence interception that is worth around $5 billion a year.
Julian Assange, of Wikileaks, stated in a video interview by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism: “Over the last 10 years, an international industry has grown up providing state intelligence agencies with mass surveillance equipment. Those industries are now exporting that equipment around the world in an uncontrolled manner.”
Assange continued: “This is something new. Previously we had all thought ‘well, why would the government be interested in me… I am not a criminal’. Now we have a situation where these companies sell to state intelligence organisations the ability to spy on the entire population at once, that is called strategic interception; take all telecommunications traffic out of a country and permanently record it.”
Annie Machon, former MI5 intelligence officer, has written an analysis for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in which she describes a “military-industrial complex [that] is evolving into the military-intelligence complex. It is a world, I fear, that is propelling us into a dystopian surveillance nightmare.”
“Since the attacks of 9/11, I have watched with increasing dismay as more powers, money and resources have been pumped into the international intelligence community to combat the nebulous ‘war on terror’. As a result, civil liberties have been eroded in our own countries, and countless innocent people have been killed, maimed and displaced across the Middle East.
“The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which was designed to allow our spy agencies to lawfully intercept our communications to counter terrorism and organised crime, has been routinely used and abused by almost 800 public bodies. MI5 admitted to making 1,061 mistakes or ‘administrative errors’ this year alone in its application of RIPA, according to the Interception of Communications Commissioner, Sir Paul Kennedy.”
Coming from an MI5 intelligence officer, that is worrying stuff.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in collaboration with Wikileaks and Privacy International, gained access document trove of 160 companies that sell surveillance technology to governments around the world.
Eric King, Policy Director at Privacy International, said: “The surveillance industry sells anything from mass interception equipment through to location tracking equipment. They provide technology that allows controller to read every single email, see every single webpage you visit, every text message you send, and these are companies that are selling equipment to some of the most repressive regimes in the world.”
What is also worrying is the lack of accountability and regulation with these companies that sell state-of-the-art surveillance equipment. Jerry Lucas, the president of the company behind ISS World, the international expo that brings surveillance and interception professionals together, did not deny that such companies sell this technology to repressive regimes. Rather, Lucas believes that a free market in surveillance technology is perfectly acceptable:
“The surveillance systems that we discuss in our seminars are available all around the world. Do some countries use them to suppress certain political statements? Yes, probably. But it’s not my job to sort out who are the good and bad countries. That’s not our business, we’re not politicians.
“Our business is to connect those who want to buy these technologies with those who sell them. You can sell cars to the Libyan rebels, and those cars could be used as weapons. Should General Motors and Nissan ask how their vehicles will be used? Why don’t you go asking questions to the car companies? It’s the free market. You can’t stem the flow of surveillance equipment.”
However, commenting on such technology, Lucas stated: “This technology is absolutely vital for civilization. You can’t have a situation where bad guys can communicate and you bar interception.” – Yet Lucas seems adamant that it is not his ‘job’ to sort out who the bad guys are.
The rise in electronic communications, from social networking to Skype, from text messages to emails, and an increase in the accessibility of such technology means that it is increasingly easier for governments and corporations to intercept and store communications data. This year’s ISS conference, hosted in Dubai, saw around 1,300 attendees from all corners of the world. However, Lucas said that it was Middle Eastern governments that were the most avid buyers of such software and equipment.
“When you’re selling to a government, you lose control of what the government is going to do with it,” Lucas said. “It’s like selling guns to people. Some are going to defend themselves. Some are going to commit crimes.”
Such technology is being sold to repressive regimes such as Syria and Libya. Two links detailing Libya’s surveillance can be found here:
Eric King, of Privacy International, said that it is imperative that we do not allow “British companies to profit from selling equipment that is used to oppress in foreign regimes.”
However, it is not just repressive regimes that are a concern; domestic surveillance by corporations and governments is a real concern, as well. As Annie Machon warned. Continued her analysis for the BIJ, saying:
“The last decade has also been a boom time for companies providing high-tech surveillance capabilities. One aspect of this in the UK – the endemic CCTV coverage – is notorious. Local councils have invested in mobile CCTV smart spy cars, while cameras that bark orders to you on the street have been trialled in Middlesbrough.
“Drones are increasingly used for aerial surveillance – and the potential for militarisation of these tools is clear.
“All this despite the fact that the head of the Metropolitan Police department that is responsible for processing all this surveillance information stated publicly that CCTV evidence is useless in helping to solve all but 3% of street robberies in London. In fact, since CCTV has been rolled out nationally, violent crime on the streets of Britain has increased.”
Machon, calling upon her experience at MI5 and using recent examples, issued a warning:
“That would never happen in Britain – would it? We retain an optimistic faith in the long-term benign intentions of our government, while tut-tutting over Syrian police snatch squads pre-emptively arresting suspected dissidents. Yet this has already happened in the UK: before the royal wedding in April, protesters were pre-emptively arrested to ensure that they would not cause embarrassment. The intent is the same in Syria and Britain. Only the scale and brutality differs – at the moment.”
There is much more to be said about this matter, and the Wikileaks surveillance leak will provide much more information, hopefully sparking debate and discourse in the mainstream media. With the latest revelations of phone hacking and surveillance by tabloid newspapers, the British public may find such emerging information regarding the unaccountable, lawless surveillance industry distasteful.
“The balance of power, bolstered by new technologies, is shifting overwhelmingly in favour of the Big Brother state – well, almost. The WikiLeaks model is helping level the playing field, and whatever happens to this trailblazing organisation, the principles and technology are out there and will be replicated. This genie cannot be put back in the bottle. This – combined with the work of informed MPs, investigative journalists and potentially the occasional whistleblower – gives me hope that we can halt this slide into a Stasi state.”