Whether we realize it or not, internet freedom is on the downhill in more ways than one. It’s a fundamental economic reality that consumer choice falls as fewer entities come to dominate a certain market. So companies like Google and Facebook, who are ever-expanding and acquiring smaller startups - like the $19 billion WhatsApp - occasionally rouse suspicion for their gradual stranglehold on web infrastructure. Luckily for now, the internet remains a fundamentally “free” place in most countries. But of course, there’s money being made in trying to change that.
Some companies are competing to fill a big niche in the web market: That niche is the removal of internet users' privacy. Certain companies identified this unfulfilled consumer need ('consumers' being governments, intelligence communities and police agencies), determined the obstacle to fulfilling that need (freedom of speech), and developed products that solve the problem (that is, products which could bypass your rights to privacy and freedom of speech). Whether an agency wants to listen in on one or two hundred thousand people, redirect their internet activity, or just keep tabs on email and chat history, these companies have created affordable solutions. Sound like one big conspiracy theory?
Here’s an excerpt from one of their websites:
“[our product] is a solution designed to evade encryption by means of an agent directly installed on the device to monitor…transmission of collected data from the device to the [product’s] server is encrypted and untraceable.”
To be clear, in layman’s terms that’s what’s called “a virus”. That is, in fact, what these companies sell: The most sophisticated, state-of-the-art malware government money can buy. Why is it kosher? They profess to do business only with agencies who decidedly “need” to monitor their populations (sort of the way Big Brother needed to monitor Oceania). As it turns out, even under those standards these companies don't have the most reputable clients.
Want to know more? These five companies identified by Reporters without Borders’ Enemies of the Internet 2013 are enterprising your internet freedoms away.
5 Hacking Team
The Italian-based Hacking Team sells a “Remote Control System” called DaVinci out of offices in Milan, Annapolis and Singapore. It’s an encryption wizard designed to break the securest of emails, files and Internet protocols while relaying private information from hundreds of thousands of computers simultaneously to the user; basically, an uber-powerful trojan horse mothership.
DaVinci has the power to dissect secure emails, monitor any voice, chat or video platform like Skype or Facebook, and even remotely activate microphones and cameras on computers around the world. Its spyware comes compatible with Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Symbian and Blackberry — basically any flavour you like.
Hacking Team’s mission statement claims they sell exclusively to government agencies and never to countries blacklisted by the EU, NATO or the US, but in 2012 a Moroccan news website called Mamfakinch mysteriously found Hacking Team trojans on their office computers just days after they received the 2012 Breaking Borders Award from Global Voices and Google (that’s an award given for free expression). Another investigation found evidence that Hacking Team trojans targeted an influential blogger in the United Arab Emirates, where free speech isn't all that fashionable.
4 Blue Coat
Based out of Sunnyvale, California with a logo that screams militant security, Blue Coat’s Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology is the tool of choice for reputable countries like Syria and Burma — regular customers of world-grade spying software. DPI lets companies and governments apply censorship filters that comb IPs for signs of undesirable content, like censored or banned words, or certain kinds of activity like BitTorrents. It’s especially potent for the way it utterly abolishes internet anonymity, identifying and isolating any individual netizen based on a desired set of criteria. Unlike Hacking Team, Blue Coat sells to anyone within the law.
One respected hacker group that played a vital role in keeping communications alive during the Arab Spring discovered 15 Blue Coat proxy servers active in Syria in 2012. Over 54 gigabytes of log files indicated data intercepting, tracking and likely storing using Blue Coat products during the Arab Spring protests. Blue Coat has reportedly also sold censorship tools to Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and surveillance to China, Iraq, Russia, Thailand, Lebanon and Venezuela, to name a few.
Trovicor is like the McDonald’s of internet censorship. The former subsidiary of Siemens now has its own branches in Switzerland, Germany, Dubai, Pakistan, Malaysia and the Czech Republic which supply over 100 countries with affordable surveillance equipment, “lawful interception technology” and their own specialized brand of monitoring centers. They were also the leading sponsor for ISS World 2013 — yep internet spying has a world fair. 'SpyCon', anyone?
In 2010 Trovicor was questioned before the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights over their alleged sales to Iran, Bahrain and Syria, where governments palpably employ Western technology to track, imprison and torture journalists and dissidents as a matter of course. Governments with an eye out for free speech need look no further than becoming franchisees to Trovicor’s high-tech monitoring centers, and could even employ a little bit of that entrepreneurial spirit to convert them into all-out sabotage facilities. At least that’s what Bahrain, Iran, Yemen and Syria did.
It’s hard to cut Amesys some slack. After all, who could ever believe Muammar Gaddafi, the de facto Libyan dictator for 42 years, would do only good with some of the most powerful spying technology on the planet?
Amesy’s contract with Gaddafi’s secret police led directly to the targeting and harassment (also likely torture) of Libyan journalists, like Khaled Mhiri — a key correspondent with Al Jazeera — who was eventually forced into hiding during the Arab Spring. The International Federation for Human Rights is currently suing this French IT firm for complicity in torture.
Amesy’s main product is called EAGLE. Think of it as NSA-in-a-box: It’s made up of a network probe, a series of storage systems and a monitoring center which coordinates between them by analyzing and sorting information for future access. Like Blue Coat, EAGLE also comes equipped with Deep Packet Inspection technology to comb through massive amounts of data for hot content, and single out offenders in email, chat, http and search engine queries. It’s everything you need to duct-tape internet communications, and it's far more in the wrong hands.
1 Gamma International
Are you a paranoid government agency looking to infect a network and access every connected user’s personal information, including real-time voice chats, video and encrypted emails at your convenience? Have you ever wanted eyes and ears in the homes of your political dissenters? Gamma International has the solution, with its industry-standard FinFisher suite.
FinFisher includes all the malware you’d ever need to infect PCs, mobile phones, consumer electronics and entire proxy servers, and it's backed by robust command and control features for carrying out tasks like:
-Switching on webcams and microphones
-Reading encrypted emails
-Supervising text and video chats
-and accessing encrypted hard drive data
And best of all, once planted, Gamma’s industry-standard malware is almost impossible to remove safely.
Investigations have turned up Gamma’s on- and offline monitoring spyware time and time again in press-hostile countries from Bahrain to the UAE. It insists these governments use stolen modified versions — a pretty fishy claim, considering FinFisher servers in Bahrain receive regular updates and appear expertly installed with careful planning and complex physical servers. Gamma’s technology has also been confirmed active in Australia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Brunei, Singapore, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Latvia, Mongolia, Qatar, the UAE and — yes — the U.S.A.