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For their eyes only: The commercialization of digital spying
Morgan Marquis-Bore, Bill Marczak, Claudio Gaurnieri and John Scott-Railton, Citizen Lab

April 30, 2013

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In the late 1990s in a central Auckland warehouse, I ran New Zealand’s first cypherpunk anonymous remailer together with some friends. Anonymous remailers made it possible to send encrypted, anonymous e-mails; the idea was that this would guard free speech from the chilling effects of surveillance. In our more optimistic moments, we felt that the Internet would operate as a “Liberation Technology,” facilitating free and open discourse in a manner that could naturally... only be positive. Of course, this type of technology would need to be nurtured, and people would need secure communications in order to empower the type of discussion which was essential to freedom and transparency in the Information Age. At the time this technology was not widely used, however, the views of the nascent cypherpunk scene were in some ways highly prescient.

Social media, privacy enhancing technologies, and the global digital commons gradually came to play an integral part in global politics. Yet the surveillance capabilities that lurked within Internet wouldn’t be publicly understood for years. As the world’s communications moved from telephone and fax to email, chat and VOIP, we witnessed the rise of “Massive Intercept” technology and its ubiquitous integration into modern network architecture. While this facilitated wide-scale monitoring of communications that traversed the Internet, expanded lawful intercept statutes allowed for increased government powers to access provider-held user data.

The notion that people have a right to secure communications has also flourished and become mainstream. The majority of large online services providers now use transport encryption to secure the email and chat conversations of their users and several online companies provide encrypted voice communication as a free service. In addition to this, the general popularity of third party security tools has thrived. Nevertheless, changes in the character of digital surveillance have quietly paralleled these advances in Internet security.

While hacking as a means of data-gathering has existed since the inception of the Internet, in the last few years the rise of an industry providing commercial intrusion and malware as lawful interception products has grown. As articulated in a quote from The New York Times article, “Software Meant to Fight Crime Is Used to Spy on Dissidents”:

“The market for such technologies has grown to $5 billion a year from “nothing 10 years ago,” said Jerry Lucas, president of TeleStrategies, the company behind ISS World, an annual surveillance show where law enforcement agents view the latest computer spyware”

Once a boutique capability possessed by few nation states, commercial intrusion and monitoring tools are now being sold globally for dictator pocket change. While this technology is frequently marketed as lawful intercept capability, in countries where criminal activity is broadly defined, or dissent is criminalised, these tools are used as a mechanism for repression. The concept of “lawful interception” does not apply in countries where the rule of law is absent. With the increased ability of regimes to purchase advanced surveillance capabilities from “Western countries,” this technology has been used to target activists, journalists, dissidents and human rights workers.

An investigation uncovering the use of “governmental IT intrusion” software against a group of Middle Eastern activists last year has grown into a body of research displaying the ubiquity of commercialised surveillance software. While there are undoubtedly legitimate uses for targeted surveillance, historical abuses of secret surveillance are manifold. When such activity is opaque and technological capabilities remain secret, citizens lack the knowledge to fully comprehend the scope and nature of surveillance and hence lack ability to challenge it.

Technology can work for us, but it can also happen to us; it is my hope that this research will help us make an informed decision about what is happening here.

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