Private firms are selling spying tools and mass surveillance technologies to developing countries with promises that “off the shelf” equipment will allow them to snoop on millions of emails, text messages and phone calls, according to a cache of documents published on Monday.
The papers show how firms, including dozens from Britain, tout the capabilities at private trade fairs aimed at offering nations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East the kind of powerful capabilities that are usually associated with government agencies such as GCHQ and its US counterpart, the National Security Agency.
The market has raised concerns among human rights groups and ministers, who are poised to announce new rules about the sale of such equipment from Britain.
“The government agrees that further regulation is necessary,” a spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said. “These products have legitimate uses … but we recognise that they may also be used to conduct espionage.”
The documents are included in an online database compiled by the research watchdog Privacy International, which has spent four years gathering 1,203 brochures and sales pitches used at conventions in Dubai, Prague, Brasilia, Washington, Kuala Lumpur, Paris and London. Analysts posed as potential buyers to gain access to the private fairs.
The database, called the Surveillance Industry Index, shows how firms from the UK, Israel, Germany, France and the US offer governments a range of systems that allow them to secretly hack into internet cables carrying email and phone traffic.
The index has details from 338 companies, including 77 from the UK, offering a total of 97 different technologies.
One firm says its “massive passive monitoring” equipment can “capture up to 1bn intercepts a day”. Some offer cameras hidden in cola cans, bricks or children’s carseats, while one manufacturer turns cars or vans into surveillance control centres.
What’s on offer
Some companies offer a range of spy equipment that would not look out of place in a James Bond film
Ordinary vans, cars and motorbikes can be customised to offer everything a spy could need. Tiny cameras and microphones are hidden in wing mirrors, headlights and even the makers’ logo. Vehicles can also be fitted with the latest mass surveillance technology, allowing them to intercept, assess and store a range of digital communications from the surrounding area.
The range of objects that can hide high-quality cameras and recording equipment appears almost limitless; from a box of tissues giving a 360-degree view of the room, to a child’s car seat, a brick and a key fob. Remote controls allow cameras to follow targets as they move around a room and have a powerful zoom to give high definition close-ups.
As with cameras recording equipment is getting more sophisticated and more ubiquitous. From cigarette lighters to pens their are limitless ways to listen in on other people’s conversations. One firm offers a special strap microphone that straps to the wearer’s would be spies’ back and records conversations going on directly behind them. According to the brochure: “[This] is ideal because people in a crowd think that someone with their back turned can’t hear their conversation.. Operatives can work much closer to their target.”
Handheld ‘biometric cameras’
This system, made by a UK firm, is currently being used by British forces in Afghanistan to help troops identify potential terrorists. The brochure for the Mobile Biometric Platform says: “Innocent civilian or Insurgent? Not Certain? Our systems are.” It adds: “The MBP is tailored for military use and enables biometric enrolment and identification of finger, face and iris against on board watchlists in real time from live or forensic data.”
Mobile phone locators
It is now possible, from a single laptop computer, to locate where a mobile phone is calling from anywhere in the world, with an accuracy of between 200 metres and a mile. This is not done by attaching probes, and it is not limited to the area where the laptop is working from. The “cross border” system means it is now theoretically possible to locate a mobile phone call from a town abroad from a laptop in London.