Wikileaks’ Spy Files paints damning picture of tech surveillance

Wikileaks released a database on Thursday of tech providers involved in government tracking around the globe and quite a few familiar names are on the list, including Alcatel Lucent, (s alu) Nokia (s nok) and Cisco (s csco). Called The Spy Files, the project includes 287 records gathered and curated in conjunction with several newspapers, Working with Bugged Planet and Privacy International, as well as media organizations from six countries including the Washington Post (s wpo) in the U.S. While the tone of the essay accompanying the release is designed to inspire fear, the accumulation of product brochures, manuals and presentations are pretty damning.

The sum of all these parts is a huge privacy violation

For example, when viewed in a single presentation, claims made by Netronome — a networking chip maker — that it can process massive flows of information in real-time in order to intercept unlawful packets might not be worrisome. However, when juxtaposed against the violation of human rights that the word “unlawful” can hide, it becomes part of a broader story of surveillance and what many in the U.S. would rightly regard as a violation of their privacy. From the intro to The Spy Files:

Intelligence agencies, military forces and police authorities are able to silently, and on mass, and secretly intercept calls and take over computers without the help or knowledge of the telecommunication providers. Users’ physical location can be tracked if they are carrying a mobile phone, even if it is only on stand by.

But the WikiLeaks Spy Files are about more than just ’good Western countries’ exporting to ’bad developing world countries’. Western companies are also selling a vast range of mass surveillance equipment to Western intelligence agencies. In traditional spy stories, intelligence agencies like MI5 bug the phone of one or two people of interest. In the last ten years systems for indiscriminate, mass surveillance have become the norm. Intelligence companies such as VASTech secretly sell equipment to permanently record the phone calls of entire nations. Others record the location of every mobile phone in a city, down to 50 meters. Systems to infect every Facebook user, or smart-phone owner of an entire population group are on the intelligence market.

WikiLeaks' leader Julian Assange

What people can do in reaction to the information

But will the shock of seeing the tools of our digital surveillance society aggregated together with tales of abuses be enough to stop governments from implementing ever more technical means of gathering, analyzing and using information? My colleague Mathew believes the transparency here will help address the problem, but I have less confidence. While the outrage currently aimed at CarrierIQ in the U.S. over its software that tracks users via their smartphones is intense, in a month it may well be forgotten. Lasting and real change is harder to come by when it comes to these issues, because it’s hard for enough people to sustain the outrage needed to go against something that benefits the government.

That the CIA or FBI can put GPS devices on cars without a warrant (since questioned by the courts) or attempt to access the data about web sites or on hard drives is a huge temptation even in the freedom-loving U.S.. Because of the ephemeral nature of our digital transactions, many citizens are unaware at how concrete and traceable their bytes really are. Just because you don’t recall a tweet you made six months ago, doesn’t mean it can’t be found and dredged up against you. Likewise, search data sticks around for nine to 18 months; your phones are a black box of information that the feds would love to crack; and the government and law enforcement don’t want to restrict their access to any of this digital gold mine. Unlike the Founding Fathers, who were protecting their rights after a revolution, our politicians are protecting the status quo and see surveillance as a tool to help maintain that.

As for sales to dictators and other countries that might use access to Internet monitoring, phone tracking, listening devices and GPS logging software as a means of repressing their citizens or activists, the practice may be morally reprehensible, but its unclear if it runs afoul of U.S. laws. Yes, there are laws that prevent U.S. firms from selling technology to certain governments, but the list of governments and technologies is by no means comprehensive.

But, other than shining a light on the practice and writing stories, what is there to be done? In the U.S., the courts are the best method of counteracting overreaching governments, which means someone has to get caught up in some zealous digital manhunt. The Wikileaks Spy Files may help someone realize this is going on, but it’s unlikely we’ll see laws designed to really protect privacy in the digital age. So then how should citizens, public policy groups and others take this data dump? More than the information that DPI inspection gear from Arbor Networks or data retention and analysis tools from Netezza or RainStor are used in some cases to target or suppress citizens or activists, these are the questions the report evokes.