By Christopher Soghoian.-

The 2011 Arab Spring captured the attention of the world. It also captured the attention of authoritarian governments in other countries, who were worried that revolution would spread. To respond, they ramped up surveillance of activists, journalists and dissidents who they feared would inspire revolution in their own countries. One prominent Bahraini activist, who was arrested and tortured by his government, has said that the interrogators showed him transcripts of his telephone calls and text messages.

Of course, it’s no secret that governments are able to intercept telephone calls and text messages. It’s for that reason that many activists specifically avoid using the telephone. Instead, they use tools like Skype, which they think are immune to interception. They’re wrong. There have now been over the last few years an industry of companies who provide surveillance technology to governments, specifically technology that allows those governments to hack into the computers of surveillance targets. Rather than intercepting the communications as they go over the wire, instead they now hack into your computer, enable your webcam, enable your microphone, and steal documents from your computer.

When the government of Egypt fell in 2011, activists raided the office of the secret police, and among the many documents they found was this document by the Gamma Corporation, by Gamma International. Gamma is a German company that manufactures surveillance software and sells it only to governments. It’s important to note that most governments don’t really have the in-house capabilities to develop this software. Smaller ones don’t have the resources or the expertise, and so there’s this market of Western companies who are happy to supply them with the tools and techniques for a price. Gamma is just one of these companies. I should note also that Gamma never actually sold their software to the Egyptian government. They’d sent them an invoice for a sale, but the Egyptians never bought it. Instead, apparently, the Egyptian government used a free demo version of Gamma’s software. (Laughter)

So this screenshot is from a sales video that Gamma produced. Really, they’re just emphasizing in a relatively slick presentation the fact that the police can sort of sit in an air-conditioned office and remotely monitor someone without them having any idea that it’s going on. You know, your webcam light won’t turn on. There’s nothing to indicate that the microphone is enabled.

This is the managing director of Gamma International. His name is Martin Muench. There are many photos of Mr. Muench that exist. This is perhaps my favorite. I’m just going to zoom in a little bit onto his webcam. You can see there’s a little sticker that’s placed over his camera. He knows what kind of surveillance is possible, and so clearly he doesn’t want it to be used against him. Muench has said that he intends for his software to be used to capture terrorists and locate pedophiles. Of course, he’s also acknowledged that once the software has been sold to governments, he has no way of knowing how it can be used. Gamma’s software has been located on servers in countries around the world, many with really atrocious track records and human rights violations. They really are selling their software around the world.

Gamma is not the only company in the business. As I said, it’s a $5 billion industry. One of the other big guys in the industry is an Italian company called Hacking Team. Now, Hacking Team has what is probably the slickest presentation. The video they’ve produced is very sexy, and so I’m going to play you a clip just so you can get a feel both for the capabilities of the software but also how it’s marketed to their government clients.

(Video) Narrator: You want to look through your target’s eyes. (Music) You have to hack your target. [“While your target is browsing the web, exchanging documents, receiving SMS, crossing the borders”] You have to hit many different platforms. [“Windows, OS X, iOS, Android, Blackberry, Symbian, Linux”] You have to overcome encryption and capture relevant data. [Skype & encrypted calls, target location, messaging, relationships, web browsing, audio & video”] Being stealth and untraceable. [“Immune to any protection system Hidden collection infrastructure”] Deployed all over your country. [“Up to hundreds of thousands of targets Managed from a single spot”] Exactly what we do.

Christopher Soghoian: So, it would be funny if it wasn’t true, but, in fact, Hacking Team’s software is being sold to governments around the world. Last year we learned, for example, that it’s been used to target Moroccan journalists by the Moroccan government. Many, many countries it’s been found in. So, Hacking Team has also been actively courting the U.S. law enforcement market. In the last year or so, the company has opened a sales office in Maryland. The company has also hired a spokesperson. They’ve been attending surveillance industry conferences where law enforcement officials show up. They’ve spoken at the conferences. What I thought was most fascinating was they’ve actually paid for the coffee break at one of the law enforcement conferences earlier this year. I can’t tell you for sure that Hacking Team has sold their technology in the United States, but what I can tell you that if they haven’t sold it, it isn’t because they haven’t been trying hard.

So as I said before, governments that don’t really have the resources to build their own tools will buy off-the-shelf surveillance software, and so for that reason, you see that the government of, say, Tunisia, might use the same software as the government of Germany. They’re all buying off-the-shelf stuff. The Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States does have the budget to build their own surveillance technology, and so for several years, I’ve been trying to figure out if and how the FBI is hacking into the computers of surveillance targets.

My friends at an organization called the Electronic Frontier Foundation — they’re a civil society group — obtained hundreds of documents from the FBI detailing their next generation of surveillance technologies. Most of these documents were heavily redacted, but what you can see from the slides, if I zoom in, is this term: Remote Operations Unit. Now, when I first looked into this, I’d never heard of this unit before. I’ve been studying surveillance for more than six years. I’d never heard of it. And so I went online and I did some research, and ultimately I hit the mother lode when I went to LinkedIn, the social networking site for job seekers. There were lots of former U.S. government contractors who had at one point worked for the Remote Operating Unit, and were describing in surprising detail on their CVs what they had done in their former job. (Laughter) So I took this information and I gave it to a journalist that I know and trust at the Wall Street Journal, and she was able to contact several other former law enforcement officials who spoke on background and confirmed that yes, in fact, the FBI has a dedicated team that does nothing but hack into the computers of surveillance targets. Like Gamma and Hacking Team, the FBI also has the capability to remotely activate webcams, microphones, steal documents, get web browsing information, the works.

There’s sort of a big problem with governments going into hacking, and that’s that terrorists, pedophiles, drug dealers, journalists and human rights activists all use the same kinds of computers. There’s no drug dealer phone and there’s no journalist laptop. We all use the same technology, and what that means then is that for governments to have the capability to hack into the computers of the real bad guys, they also have to have the capability to hack into our devices too.

So governments around the world have been embracing this technology. They’ve been embracing hacking as a law enforcement technique, but without any real debate. In the United States, where I live, there have been no congressional hearings. There’s no law that’s been passed specifically authorizing this technique, and because of its power and potential for abuse, it’s vital that we have an informed public debate.

Thank you very much.