Wikileaks’ most recent document dump reveals emails leaked from an Italian company called Hacking Team that sells intrusive spyware to governments, exposing myriad government agencies from Bangladesh to the US for purchasing this surveillance software. It also exposes an oily hypocrisy.
According to the leaked emails hosted on Wikileaks, Ecuador’s National Intelligence Secretariat (SENAIN) is among the Hacking Team clients. The emails chronicle how SENAIN purchased Hacking Team’s Remote Access Software, an extensive and invasive hacking tool that lets governments hijack phones, intercept messages, and record keystrokes and conversations.
In one email, Hacking Team employees discuss how SENAIN is “having problems” with seven phone numbers—the phone numbers of opposition politicians, including Congressman Andrés Páez, Lourdes Tibán, and Luis Fernando Torres. Ecuador’s government has already been accused of spying on its rivals, and this email suggests that SENAIN is actively monitoring its political enemies within Ecuador.
Ecuadorean media outlets reporting on the government’s use of Hacking Team software had their websites hacked and crashed after the story broke. (There’s no hard evidence that the Ecuadorean government orchestrated those hacks.)
Meanwhile, government watchdog group Ecuador Transparente—a group nicknamed the “Ecuadorean Wikileaks”—has published a separate trove of leaked SENAIN documents this week that suggest the government is extensively spying on its political rivals.
A government using secret surveillance software is exactly the type of thing Wikileaks and its leader Julian Assange take pride in exposing and calling out. Assange has a history of publicly condemning governments for surveillance and censorship, and views himself as a man on the run from governments willing to surreptitiously monitor him for exposing their oppression.
He has spoken against China’s censorship tactics, chided his native Australia for lying about its surveillance program, and slagged the US National Security Agency for “reckless and unlawful behaviour” while calling for the White House to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate its criminal activity. This year, Wikileaks harshly criticised Google for turning its emails over to US law enforcement.
Yet Assange, snug in his Ecuador-underwritten berth, has remained silent on his host country’s surveillance tactics.
I attempted to contact Assange for comment through his publishers and the lawyers, researchers, activists, and artists listed as allies on the Wikileaks site, though no one put me directly in contact with Assange. Wikileaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson told me that, as far as he knew, Assange had no plan to comment.
Assange lives in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, and hasn’t stepped foot outside the complex since June 19, 2012. He’s not taking a weird, very long Spanish immersion programme for agoraphobes—he’s avoiding the Swedish government. Ecuador granted Assange political asylum, but he can’t travel there without risking arrest in transit, because the UK has agreed that it will extradite Assange to Sweden so he can be questioned about allegedly sexually assaulting two women. Assange claims the Swedish questioning is a ploy to help the US extradite him for publishing the classified government documents, and remains in the Ecuadorean embassy to this day as a refugee.
The relationship between Assange and his keepers is chummy. The Ecuadorean government has treated Assange like he’s its first AirBnb customer and it’s desperate for a good review, risking political alienation to accommodate the Australian. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said that Assange can stay in its small London embassy for “centuries” if he wants. Assange has called Correa “a transformative leader” and has publicly complimented his joke-telling abilities
It’s not surprising that Assange is reluctant to attack his host and bite the hand literally feeding him. But it exposes a more cynical side of Assange and his organisation, one willing to overlook clashes in principle for the sake of convenience.
CNN’s Erin Burnett questioned Assange on his decision to accept protection from Ecuador back in 2012. Assange avoided reconciling his strong condemnation of censorship with his embrace of a government known as severely restrictive for journalists, insisting that “all governments have their problems,” and claiming that Ecuador was “insignificant” and therefore not worthy of the same attention paid to global powers like the US. Now that he’s more sequestered than ever, Assange hasn’t spoken up about Ecuador’s violation of the principles he claims to uphold.
Hacking Team’s contract with Ecuador continues through October 2016. Assange is holding his tongue about an active surveillance program centred on secrecy, a surveillance program SENAIN denies despite the evidence hosted by Wikileaks.
Assange may be weighing the repercussions of speaking out against his host country. Perhaps he’ll be more forthcoming whenever he’s no longer a ward of Ecuador. But his continued silence on Ecuador’s abuses of power, censorship, and privacy violations is a stark reminder that even the so-called guardians of transparency can stay in the shadows when it’s to their benefit.