Hundreds of Firms Are Selling NSA-Level Spy Tech and That's Not Okay

By Adam Clark Estes on at

While Americans shuddered over revelations about NSA surveillance earlier this year, hundreds of private companies, even in Britain, have been marketing technology that lets anybody be a spy. We're not talking about a few nanny cams here and there, either. We're talking about military-grade tools for whoever has the cash.

The anti-surveillance group Privacy International just published a massive store of documents related to private companies selling surveillance equipment on the global market, and the contents are unsettling. In total, there are 1,203 documents detailing 97 different surveillance technologies, including everything from sophisticated spy cameras to software that can intercept phone call data, text messages and emails—just like the NSA does. The companies are also marketing these things to some of the world's worst despots.

"Because of the freedom to exist largely in the shadows, members of the private surveillance industry have gained a sense of impunity," Privacy International's Matt Rice wrote in a blog post announcing the so-called Surveillance Industry Index, adding that these tools have shown up in places like Libya. "In repressive regimes, these technologies enable spying that stifles dissent, has chilling effects across society, and in many cases allows governments to hunt down those it wishes to silence."

That's not okay at all. According to The Guardian, British officials are now moving to introduce sanctions on the surveillance industry much in the same way that they regulate the international arms trade. Lawmakers want regulation to happen on an international scale, too, since it's an international problem. And while that might sound somewhat extreme for more commonplace spy tools like, well, nanny cams, it seems almost obligatory for tools like mobile phone locators that can track the location of any phone call down to a few meters.

Some of the technology gets even more absurd than that, though. One Dubai-based company, Advanced Middle East Systems (AMES) sells a device called Cerebro—yes, just like the crazy mutant surveillance tool in X-Men—that taps into fiber optic cables to intercept any and all communications. Just as the NSA gobbles up telephone metadata, texts, chat sessions and email, Cerebro can pretty much pick up any dispatch on any electronic medium. The South African company VASTech offers a similar product called Zebra.

Obviously, regulating this industry won't be easy. It'll take a little bit of finesse to strike a balance between giving people access to tools like security cameras that will keep burglars out of their homes and keep similar tools out of the hands of criminals.

Based on how Privacy International describes the status quo, however, any amount of regulation would be better than what we have now, which sounds like a technology free-for-all for Big Brother. [Privacy International via Guardian]

Image via Shutterstock / F. Schmidt