Tech blog

Surveillance made easy

»Net Optics, Vupen Security, FinFisher, HackingTeam… The names of these software companies may not ring a bell; but they are a growing tribe of companies that are offering technology to help governments intercept your communication.

Governments have a legitimate need to monitor communication on mobile networks and internet to check criminal activities. For a long time the surveillance technologies were home grown or custom made, though there have been a few companies selling popular surveillance products.

But in the last few years, the phenomenal spread of internet and mobile phones, along with the growing paranoia of governments, has led to the mushrooming of companies specialising in surveillance domain. A new industry selling off-the-shelf interception software has come into existence. These companies are estimated to earn about 5 billion dollars a year and are poised to grow faster as venture capitalists have begun to show interest in them. They come together in secretive annual conferences held around the world, especially in hotspots such as West Asia, where entry is by invitation only. 
 
The ‘Wall Street Journal’ recently collected the marketing brochures circulated by these companies at a conference and posted them online. These reveal an unprecedented insight into the modus operandi of the surveillance experts. Perhaps due to the growing competition they are no longer content keeping an eye on traffic passing through ISPs and mobile networks.

Many of them are using techniques mastered by cyber criminals.  To pre-empt you from encrypting your messages, they may try to install malware on your computer or mobile, which will open a back door to governments to track your activities. They may exploit security holes in popular software such as windows, which the vendors  themselves may not be aware of. As the vendors close these holes, the surveillance stalwarts set out to discover new vulnerabilities, setting of a new kind of Tom and Jerry chase.

Surveillance vendors say they limit sales to governments; some even claim they refrain from sharing expertise with blacklisted or repressive regimes. But WSJ found some of them actively helping countries such as Libya and Egypt deal with their noisy protesters.
Indian authorities are also known to be fond of surveillance products. At least one of the companies mentioned in the WSJ catalogue, Telesoft, has an office in the country at Noida. To view the WSJ catalogue, visit www.projects.wsj.com/ surveillance-catalog.

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