Taking a peek at the panopticon
Cross-regional and Blogosphere, Media and Internet3 Comments
We at NewEurasia hear all sorts of rumors about the monitoring powers of the countries we observe and work in, but often we don’t really have a concrete sense about what they can and cannot really do. Well, earlier this month WikiLeaks released the Spy Files, a leak practically tailor-made for us. In my opinion, it could be their most substantive leak so far (I say that recognizing all the pros and cons that goes with such a statement), although with nearly none of the fanfare/hype that accompanied its earlier mega-leaks.
The Spy Files so far are constituted of 287 documents collected from 160 international intelligence contractors (no word on exactly how) over the last few years. The database is mostly sales brochures and PowerPoint presentations but apparently also includes internal documents of such companies like Gamma corporation in the United Kingdom, Ipoque of Germany, Amesys and Vupen in France, VASTech in South Africa, ZTE Corp in China, Phoenexia in the Czech Republic, SS8 and Blue Coat in the USA, our ever-reliable friends at Siemens, so on and so on. This industry is almost completely unregulated — and it’s quite a hydra.
Unfortunately, the Spy Files haven’t yet revealed anything about the Central Asian republics. However, we now know a little bit about our friends to the North. Russia has/had capabilities in sms monitoring, speech analysis, and phone monitoring, particularly mobile forensic analysis for smartphones and audio forensics (I should note that a lot of the information in question is a few years old, so what we do know is already out of date, but it suffices to give an unhappy idea). The tech comes to them courtesy of the companies Oxygen Software and Speech Technology Center, Ltd. No word yet on some of the really scare stuff that has been known to find its way into the occasional Russian nationalist hacker.
There are basically two kinds of technology at stake, let’s call them “malicious” and what European parliamentarian Marietje Schaake has called “dual-use” technology in her recent RFE/RL interview.
To give you an idea of malicious tech, surveillance companies like the USA’s SS8, Italy’s Hacking Team and France’s Vupen manufacture Trojan viruses that hijack individual computers and phones (yes, including iPhones, Blackberries and Androids), take over the device, record its every use, movement and even the sights and sounds of the room it’s in (there’s a reason I tend to tape over my webcam and laptop microphone when I’m not using them). The Czech Republic’s Phoenexia collaborates with militaries to create speech analysis tools that identifies individuals by gender, age and stress levels and track them based on “voiceprints”, while the USA’s Intelligence Integration Systems, Inc. “location-based analytics” software called Geospatial Toolkit to, well, you can guess what.
As for dual-use tech, that’s anything that in “normal” contexts would be relatively innocent, including, yes, things like Foursquare or Find My Friends (which has always struck me as weird concepts: why would I want to know where my friends are every minute of every day?) up to an including entire online social networks like Facebook. I’ve written elsewhere about the possibility for authorities to exploit the social data from “official” or “approved” social networks like Vkontakte, Renren or Muloqot, to monitor their citizenries.*
To be clear, the danger isn’t exactly that authorities are actively using their toys; they can very passively and unconsciously collect data on people, and then when the time comes, pull up the personal dossiers and put together the information (I’m simplifying, of course, but in principle it is that easy). A good mental tool to use in the future is that whenever you’re thinking about using a new application or device, ask yourself: what else could this be used for? And while you’re doing that, we’ll keep watching WikiLeaks to see if anything is eventually revealed about our region…
*On a related note, according to Annasoltan many Turkmenet users are concerned that Facebook is giving their personal data to their government. I think if that is happening (and, frankly, who knows where the Turkmenet got the idea?), it is indeed extremely important, but there is so far no proof or even circumstantial evidence. For the time being, I think the bigger danger lies in Facebook’s recent trend of unmasking the real identities of activists and journalists.