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Uncovered documents show tools governments use to monitor us digitally

The Wall Street Journal has published an exposé on technologies being sold to governments to enable them to intercept the publics’ digital communications. It describes the expose as “a rare window into a new global market for the off-the-shelf surveillance technology that has arisen in the decade since September 11”.

Mirroring Wikileaks, the Journal has titled the release “The Surveillance Catalogue,” and refers to it as a “documents trove”.

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The documents, which comprise highly secret marketing papers from the companies developing these technologies, tout tools that enable governments to hack into people’s cellphones and computers, and so-called “massive intercept gear”. “Massive Intercept gear” allows those utilising it to gather all online communication happening in a country.

One document selling a product called Scan Surveillance which could possibly be described as a full spectrum digital surveillance tool, promises to “Find the needle in the digital haystack!”.

According to the document, “Scan Surveillance analyses Web and mobile text content in real-time. With Scan Surveillance you can detect potential terrorist or criminal messages in SMS, IM, Twitter, e-mails, Facebook, blogs, lorums, etc”.

The trove was uncovered in the wake of a “secretive” surveillance conference near US capital, Washington D.C.

The Journal quotes an organiser of the conference as saying that while traditionally governments had conducted and created their own surveillance and relevant equipment, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks a market, worth up to US$5-billion, had sprung up for these tools.

Also in the wake of the attacks, many governments, following the lead of the US’ Patriot Act, enacted legislation which gave them far wider surveillance powers. Civil liberty advocates worldwide decried these changes.

Former deputy chief technology officer in the Obama White House, Andrew McLaughlin, also pointed out to the Journal that “The Arab Spring countries all had more sophisticated surveillance capabilities than I would have guessed.”

As the Arab Spring began, nations such as Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and, currently Syria surprised many by how sophisticated the tools they were using in intercepting digital communications.

An example of this includes an internet surveillance centre in Libya which was recently uncovered as having been installed by a French firm. Technology by a British firm was also used to intercept people’s Skype communications.

In Syria, meanwhile, where the regime continues to slaughter protestors, a US company admitted to the Journal its devices where being used by the ruling party.

Companies making these technologies, however, stress that they obey export laws and are not responsible for how it is used.

The Journal, again taking a page from Wikileaks’ book, has published all the documents for viewing here (no subscription required) and asks the readers to highlight anything “interesting”.

Image: A page from George Orwell’s 1984

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