The Surveillance Industry Index: An Introduction

News & Analysis
The Surveillance Industry Index: An Introduction

Privacy International is pleased to announce the Surveillance Industry Index, the most comprehensive publicly available database on the private surveillance sector.

Over the last four years, Privacy International has been gathering information from various sources that details how the sector sells its technologies, what the technologies are capable of and in some cases, which governments a technology has been sold to. Through our collection of materials and brochures at surveillance trade shows around the world, and by incorporating certain information provided by Wikileaks and Omega Research Foundation, this collection of documents represents the largest single index on the private surveillance sector ever assembled. All told, there are 1,203 documents detailing 97 surveillance technologies contained within the database. The Index features 338 companies that develop these technologies in 36 countries around the world.

This research was conducted as part of our Big Brother Incorporated project, an investigation into the international surveillance trade that focuses on the sale of technologies by Western companies to repressive regimes intent on using them as tools of political control.

What we found

What we found, and what we are publishing, is downright scary.

Surveillance companies are developing, marketing, and selling some of the most powerful, invasive, and dangerous technologies in the world, ones that are keeping pace with the capabilities of the NSA and GCHQ. What's more, companies are maintaining relationships to the repressive regimes it sells to, constantly upgrading their systems and making customer service representatives available 24/7 for dictators and their cronies to reach out to should anything go awry with their products.

The industry is made up of companies selling products that can allow remote access to an individual’s computer or wiretap undersea cables as they arrive at landing stations, allowing for the mass interception of communications. Other companies sell analysis programmes that monitor social networks, mapping out a person's social connections and storing all the communications sent and received on the social network.

Some documents detail progammes that run voice analysis on 10-second samples taken from phones calls. Others boast of devices that seduce a mobile phone into using a monitored network when making a call in a targeted area, pinpointing its location while monitoring the content of the call.

Why publish?

The Index seeks to build upon the Wikileak's SpyFiles by providing further contextual analysis of the surveillance documents and draw links across this vast industry. This builds on our joint work with The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and the wiki projects such as Bugged Planet and Blue Cabinet that have amassed complementary information on the surveillance industry. Over 400 new documents are being released with the launch of SII as a result of a joint investigation between Privacy International and partners.

While these documents have for some time been largely inaccessible to the general public, there is undoubtedly a public interest in knowing the types of technologies that companies in your country are selling, and also what technologies may have been sold to your country. Many of the private companies have websites that mark out its ambitions and target market, but much of the information is vague, or hidden in sections on the website that requires login credentials, making the companies the gatekeepers of information on their surveillance products.

Since the NSA/GCHQ spying revelations were revealed by Edward Snowden, the public have been asking serious questions about the utility of the surveillance progammes, the oversight of the agencies involved and the effect on our fundamental freedoms. An issue that has not been discussed much has been the role private surveillance companies have played in the trade of surveillance technology. Simply put, these surveillance companies do something that domestic spy agencies do not do: they export their technology to willing buyers in the form of other national governments. Usually, these are governments that have the will, but not the technological know-how, to monitor their communications infrastructure.

This is not an abstract problem or something taking place "over there" in some far off land. The borderless nature of the internet and digital communications puts everyone's phone calls, text messages, emails, internet activity, and our most private communications are at risk.

A culture of impunity

Because of the freedom to exist largely in the shadows, members of the private surveillance industry have gained a sense of impunity. Some companies’ products have been found in Bahrain, Ethiopia and Libya, amongst other countries, and have been used to target pro-democracy activists, journalists and political opposition. While all this has been going on, the countries where these companies are based, including the United Kingdom, United States, France and Germany, have absolutely failed to regulate the export of these products.

In repressive regimes, these technologies enable spying that stifles dissent, has chilling effects across society, and in many cases allows governments to hunt down those it wishes to silence. Indeed, we have seen the very products exposed in the Surveillance Industry Index used to quash democratic movements or target individual activists. Some of the information gained from the surveillance has been used during torturous interrogations of those activists.

By its very nature, mass surveillance is neither necessary nor proportionate, meaning that these technologies enable the violation of human rights, particularly the right to privacy and freedom of expression. The documents contained within the Surveillance Industry Index show explicitly that companies gleefully market this capability, and are ready and able to install these technologies to any willing buyer. With the opportunity of mass interception and mass retention at its fingertips, governments are being outfitted with enormous powers, meaning that the technologies are ripe for abuse.

Designed to inform

This ever-growing market profits off the suffering of people around the world, yet it lacks any sort of effective oversight or accountability. We desperately need export regulations placed on these surveillance technologies, and the public needs to pressure politicians and governments to act now. The Index has been designed to operate as a resource for different members of society who are interested in this debate around surveillance from members of the public to coalitions of campaigning organisations.

A frank discussion has to take place about the utility of this technology and the destinations it has been exported to. The only way the discussion can be of any merit is if we have access to as much information about these companies and their products as possible. One of the central roles of the Surveillance Industry Index is to help start and provide momentum to the conversation about the private surveillance sector and to inform the public. Governments have been given the opportunity to respond in the past and they have failed. Now it is time to shine a light on this issue to bring it to public attention and have it discussed in a public space.

The Surveillance Industry Index is more than just a collection of documents, it is a categorisation of the technologies sold and of what these technologies do. For further information on how to access the Index and search within it please consult the Search FAQ.