The Transparent State Enemy: Western Surveillance Technology in the Hands of Despots
German companies play an important role in the market for surveillance technology used by Arab despots to spy on their people. In this industry worth billions, the companies also earn their money using methods that have been outlawed in their home country.
He lives in Bahrain, the small island nation in the Persian Gulf. He is an English teacher, married and the father of a nine-year-old son. And he is also the chairman of a unique club. To become a member, one must have been tortured by the country's government.
Abdul Ghani Al Khanjar says that he has had to endure torture six times in the last 17 years. He has spoken about his ordeals before both the British House of Commons and representatives of the United Nations.
But for the last eight months, Khanjar has been in hiding. The only way he can be contacted is through human rights organizations who know how to reach him via the Internet telephone service Skype.
The screen remains black during the first phone call. All that can be heard is the voice of a reserved, polite man. Once he has built up enough trust, a bare wall comes into view with a window to the left of it, covered with a flowered curtain. Khanjar sits in front of the curtain, wearing a white shirt, headphones and a microphone. He smiles apologetically and says: "Sorry about my haircut. I have to do it myself, and I don't have a mirror."
Khanjar has been living in this room for more than half a year. He can take five steps in one direction and four in the other, which he does regularly for a quarter of an hour at a time. He wants to keep himself fit, not knowing what the future has in store for him, or what new ordeals he might face.
The room belongs to an acquaintance who has made it available to Khanjar as a refuge. Khanjar is considered an enemy of the government and was arrested for planning to overthrow the regime. In February, after the Arab Spring had begun, the king of Bahrain suspended his sentence, probably to placate the protesters in his realm. Khanjar addressed the protesters. Soon afterwards, he learned that he was about to be arrested again and went into hiding. He was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison.
Khanjar says that there are dozens like him, people who have disappeared and were tortured to extract information. They were also confronted during interrogation with incriminating material: transcripts of their telephone conversations, copies of their emails and comments made in Internet chat rooms.
Surveillance technology produced in the West, including Germany, plays a key role in the power struggle between Arab despots and their protesting subjects. The Western software helps those in power spy on and persecute members of the opposition. It is a market worth billions, and the methods employed are often illegal in Germany.
Nevertheless, there are about two dozen such surveillance companies in Germany, often specialized service providers with names like Gamma International, Syborg and Utimaco. They keep a low profile and tend to respond to inquiries by pointing out that they are bound by strict confidentiality agreements. The industry, which promises total transparency to its customers in foreign governments and agencies, tries to keep its own activities as shielded from outside scrutiny as possible.
The buyers of digital surveillance technology are often from undemocratic countries, like Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, as well as Bahrain, where a German-Finnish company, Nokia Siemens Networks, sold its products. It was a joint subsidiary of two telecommunications giants, Nokia and Siemens, and is now owned by an investment fund registered in Guernsey, a tax haven in the English Channel. The fund, called Perusa, is managed by secretive businesspeople in Munich.
Nokia Siemens was already the subject of criticism in 2009, because of its dealings with Iran. When the fund took over the company that year, it was given a new name: Trovicor.
This is a special week for companies like Trovicor. The ISS World Asia Pacific conference, a trade show for technically adept intelligence agents, investigators and police detectives, began in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday. It is a marketplace for suppliers and buyers of surveillance technology -- and is often visited by officials from authoritarian countries.
The Cyber Warfare Europe conference, held in Berlin in September, was another key event for the intelligence and surveillance community. A former officer with the US Marines conducted the event in a windowless conference room at the Marriott Hotel.
A new, alarming attempt to create total surveillance at the expense of freedom was on display in Berlin. Functionality of the products is a priority, but so too is marketability. They are sold to any ruler who can afford it, no matter who he declares to be an enemy of the state and how he treats such so-called enemies. The attendees in Berlin seemed enthusiastic about what they were seeing, which included the latest tools for hacking into the suspects' computers. The providers of the software promise that they can even provide interested third parties with access to encrypted emails and telephone conversations.
Representatives of the Gamma Group, a conglomerate that owns two companies headquartered in a Munich office building, had their own booth at Cyber Warfare Europe. Gamma describes itself as a leader in the field of cyber surveillance. The current brochure on its flagship product, "FinFisher," reads like an investigator's wish list -- and a nightmare for civil rights activists. The 41-page brochure describes spy software for all kinds of devices and electronic eavesdropping situations.
Gamma offers a product, for example, known as an "active password sniffer," which is supposedly capable of hacking into password-protected data transmissions in online banking (SSL), as well as private, encrypted WLANs. A product called "FinSpy" is designed to facilitate live surveillance through webcams and microphones, download files without being detected, and even monitor Skype conversations and chats.
In its marketing videos, Gamma promises "full access to target systems," that is, the computers and mobile phones of those to be spied on. Of course criminals, as well as real or alleged regime opponents, should not be aware that any of this is taking place. The spy programs are installed on their computers through such tools as "fake software updates."
According to the videos, unsuspecting users download the spyware onto their devices when they update their Apple iTunes program or BlackBerry software. Once a BlackBerry, for example, has been infected, the originators of the "FinSpy Mobile" spyware can not only listen in on conversations and read text messages, but can also view contacts, photos, calendar entries and other files stored on the device -- no matter where in the world the device is being used at any given moment. Apple has just closed the security loophole that was being used for this purpose with a real iTunes update.
One of the presenters at the Berlin security conference was a slender Italian with the Milan firm Hacking Team, one of Gamma's main competitors. He described in detail how to hack into encrypted messages. Representatives from the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Indonesia, all countries with democratic deficits, listened with great interest.
The Italian explained that the encryption is not the place to start, because it is impenetrable, even by a supercomputer. The weak point, he told his audience, are the users. He then showed a video and proudly demonstrated how perfectly the surveillance works as soon the spyware is installed. According to the Italian, all it takes is the push of a button for investigators and other customers to listen in on a Skype conversation being conducted by their targets. The system also allows them to read emails or text messages.
The software is "in use with a few thousand target individuals on five continents," the man from Hacking Team said, noting that his company had achieved "high success rates" and received "a lot of positive feedback." His words were received with warm applause.
- Part 1: Western Surveillance Technology in the Hands of Despots
- Part 2: The Fine Line between Oppression and Crime Fighting
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