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Report: These tech companies sell spy tools to dictators

Privacy International

Privacy Internationals' interactive map details attendees and exhibitors of six ISS World conferences held between 2006 and 2009.



Twitter and Facebook are credited for the largely passive roles those social networks played in Arab Spring, the revolutionary wave that began in the Arab world in late 2010. Yet we don't hear a lot about other Western tech companies that actively market and sell to oppressive regimes. According to a new report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, this "technology has been linked to harassment, arrests and even torture of journalists, human rights advocates and democratic activists in many Middle East countries over the past year."

Past customers include of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Libya's late MoammarGadhafi, both long criticized by outside monitoring agencies for human rights transgressions. Who else is involved? Time to find out.

In a new series launched Thursday, the EFF profiles tech companies in the United States and Europe that sell technology that could be used in human rights violations. These are companies that demonstrate their wares at Intelligence Support Systems trade shows which, as documented by Privacy International, a non-profit advocacy, are "attended by brutal dictatorships and Western democracies alike. Governments and companies from all over the world meet, mingle, buy and sell."

You can see the companies and countries that have attended the the ISS trade show are documented on an interactive map on the Privacy International website.

What do human rights and privacy advocates such as EFF and Privacy International hope to accomplish by publicizing this information?

Here's an example of what transparency can do: Sales of Nokia handsets in Iran crashed in 2009 when customers learned that Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) sold high tech surveillance equipment connected to violent interrogations by the Iranian government. Privacy advocates hope to inspire similar boycotts and force companies to change business practices by exposing those that sell spyware to authoritarian governments.

UK-based FinFisher, a unit of Gamma International and France-based Amesys, a unit of Bull SA, are the first two companies profiled in the EFF's ongoing series.

FinFisher "provided Mubarak with a five-month trial of their sophisticated spying technology, most notably FinSpy, which can wiretap encrypted Skype phone calls and instant messages — a  service once mistakenly trusted by activists for secure communications," the EFF reports. And that's not all, the EFF continues:

The Wall Street Journal has since reported about FinFisher’s techniques and its technology’s dangerous capabilities. It works much the same way online criminals steal banking and credit card information. Authorities can covertly install malicious malware on a user’s computer without their knowledge by tricking the user into downloading fake updates to programs like iTunes and Adobe Flash. Once installed, they can see everything the user can. The FinFisher products can even remotely turn on the user’s webcam or microphone in a cell phone without the user’s knowledge.

Gadhafi hired Western spyware companies under the guise of guarding against terrorist attack, with French company Bull SA, also known as Amesys, as the main purveyor. Such technology was "deployed against dissidents, human-rights campaigners, journalists or everyday enemies of the state," the Wall Street Journal documented from evidence discovered within the deposed government's abandoned Internet monitoring center.

Here's what that Western equipment did for Gadhafi, notes the EFF:

With Amesys’ monitoring centers, Libyan authorities could read emails, get passwords, read instant message conversations and map connections among criminals, or in many cases, journalists or dissidents. OWNI graphically mapped out just how massive the surveillance system was. Documents released by WikiLeaks in November revealed that Amesys gear was even allowing Libya to spy on dissidents and opposition figures living in the United Kingdom. And as AFP reported, Gadhafi's “regime [had previously] been accused of sending agents to harass and even kill opposition figures in exile.”

In the coming weeks, the EFF will continue to profile the dozens of companies in the U.S. and the European Union that supply equipment to countries known for human rights violations, promising to continue until "Congress and the EU countries act to prevent more of this dangerous technology from falling into the wrong hands."

More on the annoying way we live now:

Helen A.S. Popkin goes blah blah blah about privacy and then asks you to join her on Twitter and/or Facebook. Also, Google+. Because that's how she rolls.