The ‘Wiretappers Ball’ Threatens Everyone’s Internet Privacy

It’s unlikely you’ve ever heard of the surveillance-industry conferences, commonly referred to as ‘the wiretappers ball’ but the products hawked at these events, and whose buying those products is concerning.

Created and hosted by Jerry Lucas, a technology entr4epreneur from N. Virginia, the trade shows bring the surveillance industry together with interested buyers. Started in 2002 with 35 attendees, that first conference has grown into five annual conferences around the world with hundreds of vendors and thousands of potential buyers and Lucas estimates the trade shows sell $5 billion of the latest tracking, monitoring and eavesdropping technology each year.  The tag line on the brochure for next year’s first conference, to be held in Dubai for buyers in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa, is Where Telecom Operators, Law Enforcement, Defense and the Intelligence Community Turn to Learn and Network.”

The Wall Street Journal obtained documents that “open a rare window into a new global market for the off-the-shelf surveillance technology that has arisen in the decade since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.” The tools offered “include hacking tools that enable governments to break into people’s computers and cellphones, and “massive intercept” gear that can gather all internet communications in a country.”

Who decides who are the good guys or the bad guys?

We can, and should, vigorously debate any tradeoff between security intrusions and personal privacy. But even when we believe the ‘good guys’ are using the technology only for good – a leap of faith I am unprepared to take – what about these same technologies being purchased by the ‘bad guys’? And exactly decides the list of bad guys?

The U.S. once counted Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden among the good guys to name just a couple of examples. According to The Wall Street Journal, during interviews in Dubai, executives at several companies said they were aware their products could be abused by authoritarian regimes but “they can’t control their use after a sale”. How very true. Those regimes are using these technologies against their own citizenry, but why stop at national borders?

“You need two things for a ­dictatorship to survive: propa­ganda and secret police”

An article in the Washington Post titled Trade in surveillance technology raises worries  sheds more light on this surveillance shopping.  According to this report, while the “products of what Lucas calls the “lawful intercept” industry are developed mainly in Western nations such as the United States but are sold all over the world with few restrictions.” This practice has human rights and privacy advocates alarmed and demanding better regulation as “[surveillance] technology has ended up in the hands of repressive governments such as those of Syria, Iran and China.

Quoting Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) who said, “You need two things for a ­dictatorship to survive: propa­ganda and secret police,” and 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” the article points out that rather than tackle the risks, the “overwhelming U.S. government response has been to engage in the event not as a potential regulator but as a customer.” In fact, representatives from more than 35 federal agencies attended the event, though according to the Washington Post article, “none would comment on their participation”.

A State Department official who attended October’s event summed up what he thought government regulation could manage due to the rapidly changing technologies. Under condition of anonymity he told the Washington post that “We’ve lost. If the technology people are selling at these conferences gets into the hands of bad people, all we can do is raise the costs. We can’t completely protect activists or anyone from this.”

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I’m also not naïve enough to think that these tools aren’t targeted towards the general U.S. population – if not by our own government, then by other governments, organized crime groups, terrorists, or corporations.  It would be absurd to believe these groups don’t have access to these technologies and are enthusiastically leveraging them.

Combine this unleashing of surveillance technology with the breaches of trust, privacy and decency outlined in two other recent blog posts Credit Score on Steroids to Track Consumers Every Financial Move, Rootkit on YOUR Phone Allows A Company You’ve Never Heard of to Spy on You – Plus how Other Corp. Tech Practices are Stripping your Privacy, then look at how Civil Rights Get Trampled in Internet Background Checks, and It is Absolutely Critical that you Understand YOU Are the Digital World’s Currency, to create a sobering picture.

What you’ll take away is the stark reality that the power of technology when steered by unethical corporate greed without strong regulatory oversight obliterates the principles of privacy, safety, and security.

I’m not ready to roll over and join that anonymous State Department official in ceding the battle for our privacy, safety, security, and way of life. But it means we have to speak up and demand changes or we will surely get what we didn’t fight against.



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