- Sep 30, 2007
- Reaction score
Here's another tough one - Rights versus Regulations, and the international reach of US laws...
Surveillance-Technology Trade Raising Concerns
Dec. 3, 2011 - Washington Post
WASHINGTON - Technology entrepreneur Jerry Lucas hosted his first trade
show for makers of surveillance gear at the Hilton in suburban McLean, Va.,
in May 2002. Thirty-five people attended.
Nine years later, Lucas holds five events annually around the world, drawing
hundreds of vendors and thousands of potential buyers for an industry that
he estimates sells $5 billion of the latest tracking, monitoring and
eavesdropping technology each year. Along the way, these events have
earned an evocative nickname: The Wiretappers' Ball.
The products of what Lucas calls the "lawful intercept" industry are
developed mainly in Western nations such as the United States but are sold
throughout the world with few restrictions.
This burgeoning trade has alarmed human-rights activists and privacy
advocates, who call for greater regulation because the technology has ended
up in the hands of repressive governments such as those of Syria, Iran and China.
"You need two things for a dictatorship to survive: propaganda and secret
police," said Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., who has proposed bills to restrict
the sale of surveillance technology overseas. "Both of those are enabled in a
huge way by the high-tech companies involved."
But the overwhelming U.S. government response has been to engage in the
event as not a potential regulator but a customer.
The list of attendees for this year's U.S. Wiretappers' Ball, held in October at
the Maryland's North Bethesda Marriott Hotel and Conference Center,
included more than 35 federal agencies, Lucas said.
The list, he added, included the FBI, Secret Service and every branch of the
military, along with the Internal Revenue Service, Agriculture Department and
the Fish and Wildlife Service.
None would comment on its participation in the event.
Representatives of 43 countries also were there, Lucas said, as were many
people from state and local law-enforcement agencies.
Journalists and members of the public were excluded.
On offer were products that allow users to track hundreds of cellphones at
once, read e-mails by the tens of thousands, even get a computer to snap a
picture of its owner and send the image to police or anyone else who buys
One product uses phony updates for iTunes and other popular programs to
infiltrate personal computers.
The Commerce Department regulates exports of surveillance technology, but
its ability to restrict the trade is limited. Intermediaries sometimes redirect
sales to foreign governments, even those subjected to economic sanctions,
once products leave the United States.
The State Department, which has spent $70 million in recent years to
promote Internet freedom abroad, has expressed rising alarm over such
transactions but has no enforcement authority.
U.S. law generally requires law-enforcement agencies to obtain court orders
when intercepting domestic Internet or phone communications. But such
restrictions do not follow products when they are sold overseas.
Industry officials say their products are designed for legitimate purposes such
as tracking terrorists, investigating crimes and allowing employers to block
pornographic and other restricted websites at their offices.
"This technology is absolutely vital for civilization," said Lucas, president of
TeleStrategies, which hosts the events, officially called Intelligent Support
Systems World Conferences.
"You can't have a situation where bad guys can communicate and you bar
interception," Lucas said.
But the surveillance products themselves make no distinction between bad
guys and good guys, only users and targets.
Several years of industry sales brochures provided to the Washington Post by
the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks and released publicly Thursday reveal that
many companies are selling sophisticated tools capable of going far beyond
conventional investigative techniques.
"People are morally outraged by the traditional arms trade, but they don't
realize that the sale of software and equipment that allows oppressive
regimes to monitor the movements, communications and Internet activity of
entire populations is just as dangerous," said Eric King of Privacy
International, a London-based group that seeks to limit government surveillance.
"(Sophisticated surveillance technology) is facilitating detention, torture and
execution," he said, "and potentially smothering the flames of another Arab
Spring," King said.
Demand for surveillance tools surged after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as
rising security concerns coincided with the spread of cellphones, Skype,
social media and other technologies that made it easier for people to
communicate and easier for governments and companies to eavesdrop on a
The surveillance-industry conferences are in Prague, Czech Republic; Dubai,
United Arab Emirates; Brasilia, Brazil; the Washington area; and Kuala
Lumpur, Malaysia, whose event starts Tuesday. They are invitation-only affairs,
and Lucas said he bars Syria, Iran and North Korea, which are under sanctions.
The most popular conference, with about 1,300 attendees, was in Dubai this
year. Middle Eastern governments, for whom the Arab Spring was "a wake-up
call," are the most avid buyers of surveillance software and equipment, Lucas
said. Any customers attending are free to buy products there.
Of the 51 companies whose sales brochures and other materials were
obtained and released by WikiLeaks, 17 have secured U.S. government
contracts in the past five years for agencies such as the FBI, State
Department and National Security Agency, according to a Washington Post
analysis of federal procurement documents.
Federal agencies declined to comment on the use of surveillance technology.
But Lucas said the Fish and Wildlife Service uses monitoring gear to catch
poachers, the Agriculture Department to investigate abuse of grants and the
IRS to search for evidence that tax filers have understated their income.
"The IRS loves to find people filing zero income on their tax returns with
photos of Ferraris on their Facebook pages," Lucas said.
An IRS spokesman declined to comment.