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Tracking the trackers: the cyber snoops working in Australia

Cyber security and communications technology companies involved in internet surveillance, censorship and monitoring activities around the world, including many who assisted the worst Middle Eastern régimes to track and find dissidents, are operating in Australia, and even benefit from taxpayer funding.

A Crikey study based on Bugged Planet’s communications interception database has revealed at least a dozen companies with track records of internet monitoring or censorship conduct business in Australia, usually in related areas such as ICT equipment and software provision. The list does not include internet monitoring and censorship operations undertaken under contract to intelligence agencies (which are kept from the public and available only to MPs on request) or law enforcement bodies such as police forces.

The list is headed by the major communications companies Nokia, Siemens and Ericsson, all of which have been implicated in the provision of surveillance technologies to Middle Eastern dictators. A joint Nokia-Siemens subsidiary, which had previously provided phone monitoring technology to Iran that enabled the brutal Tehran régime to track down dissidents, provided the Bahrain government with software to enable it to obtain text messages and details of mobile phone conversations, enabling it to catch and torture Bahraini protesters.

Ericsson has also been accused of selling surveillance technology to Iran and Ericsson equipment is used by the savage Belarussian dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko to wiretap opponents.

To this list could be added the famous example of Vodafone, whose subsidiary Vodafone Egypt spammed Egyptians with pro-Mubarak SMSs this time last year and then created an ad to try to claim credit for the uprising that overthrew him.

This week it was revealed Nokia, along with Apple and RIM, all provided the Indian government with “backdoor” access to their product software to enable surveillance, in exchange for maintaining access to Indian markets.

However, these are only the most obvious examples, reflecting the global reach of the biggest telecommunications companies. A range of lesser-known companies with track records in surveillance are also active in Australia.

The most interesting is Verint, which is mostly owned by Israeli firm Comverse, a company with close links to the Israeli defence and intelligence establishment. Comverse has long been under suspicion in the US for having an unauthorised back door into the US government’s own phone interception system — so much so that even the pro-Israel Fox News ran a story on it in 2001, after the US government had banned overseas companies from providing telephone surveillance equipment. Verint, officially based in the US, is a major supplier of surveillance equipment in the US and also provides surveillance equipment to CityRail in Sydney. Verint has also partnered with Australian company NSC to win a Defence Department contract for call centre monitoring.

Allot, another Israeli firm with links to that country’s defence establishment (its current chairman is a former senior IDF official) was most recently in the news at Christmas, when its surveillance equipment was sold to Iran, in breach of Israeli law, with, former employees claimed, the company’s full awareness (the company denies this). Allot sells the NetEnforcer internet traffic monitoring program in Australia and according to an IT News report counts Elders and educational institutions among its customers.

Companies with associations with Middle Eastern dictators also have extensive operations in Australia. German firm Utimaco, owned by British company Sophos, has provided surveillance technology to the Syrian government to enable to track down (and, usually, murder) opponents (Utimaco released a statement saying it was “investigating” the claims). Sophos has a strong presence in Australia, particularly via its anti-virus software products, and Utimaco itself is reported to have government and finance sector customers in Australia.

Chinese telecom equipment manufacturer ZTE, which helped the Gaddafi régime in Libya track opponents makes a wide range of equipment, mainly mobile phones, for Telstra.

The US firm Blue Coat, whose products are used by the Al Assad régime to censor the internet in Syria, claimed not to know how they ended up there (although it sells to other dictatorships in the Gulf region). It now has a data centre in Sydney and its filter software (of which, more later) is on laptops given to NSW school students.

Other companies that provide wide-scale surveillance technology also operate in Australia. Endace, which originated in New Zealand, spruiks its deep packet inspection technology as enabling ISPs to monitor all traffic on their systems for the purposes of “broader intelligence gathering in the interests of national security”, provides services for Australian telecommunications providers and has targeted Australian government agencies as potential customers. US company AccessData, which produces forensic investigation and cracking tools, aggressively moved into Australia in 2010, emphasising its suite of e-discovery tools to legal firms. Defence contractor Thales is another advocate of “massive monitoring” for civilian as well as military purposes.

Again, note that little information is available on what actual surveillance work is being undertaken by these or other companies in Australia because of government secrecy. But chances are, you’re either personally using, or a service provider you use is using, at least one product from firms that work in the shadowy world of surveillance and spying, or that has enabled some of the world’s worst régimes to pursue their opponents.

*Tomorrow: making sense of the surveillance sector, and the dark side of the “filtering” industry

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  • 1
    McTits Norky
    Posted Tuesday, 10 January 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    As far as I’m aware, you cannot get a telco license in Australia without having ‘backdoors’. This is the standard and totally unsurprising. As far as I know, Australia Post (as with most physical cartage companies) have to have systems in place whereby legislated investigative bodies can intercept packages without being tracked by the sender or recipient. Heck, we see it near weekly here in Australia with TV shows about how Customs/Police operate.
    Whilst I don’t think Australia’s at a surveillance state point as much as, say, US or UK is, the recent pronouncements by Attorney General McLelland regarding monitoring of environmental groups certainly does make one wonder if the unofficial constitutional amendments of ‘a fair go for all’ and ‘don’t be an arsehole, mate’ are finally to be wiped from our consciousness. But it’s certainly a stark contrast from when Bob Hawke had the RAAF fly over the Franklin Dam protests, no?

  • 2
    joanjett
    Posted Tuesday, 10 January 2012 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Do you think it would make any difference if we collectively said ‘no’ when told that the call may be monitored for training and marketing purposes? Also, I recommend using Ghostery; free software which blocks data mining cookies yet displays them in the corner so you know how many there are. This page, for example, has 8, 3 from Google, 2 from FB, Netratings, Tweetme & doubleclick. Every little bit helps…

  • 3
    joanjett
    Posted Tuesday, 10 January 2012 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Oh, I meant “training & coaching purposes”, sorry

  • 4
    McTits Norky
    Posted Tuesday, 10 January 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    @JoanJett: NoScript, Adblock Plus, RequestPolicy, Ghostery, Wappalyzer, Cert Patrol, BetterPrivacy,… Tor, Prixovy/Polipo… yes the list goes on ;)

  • 5
    joanjett
    Posted Tuesday, 10 January 2012 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Gotta love the name BetterPrivacy! Cudos for the tongue in cheek, ha!

  • 6
    Lee Wilkinson
    Posted Tuesday, 10 January 2012 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Virtually every telecom product, from the lowliest Ethernet switch to a core router has port mirroring or some variant thereof and has for years, include every single vendor in that category if you’re going to point the finger. That this is news at all is supprising, and a bit like accusing Ford of making cars that run policitical dissendents over.

  • 7
    davidk
    Posted Tuesday, 10 January 2012 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    It seems we can’t trust multi-nationals.
    @ joanjett et al thanks for the names.

  • 8
    Edward James
    Posted Tuesday, 10 January 2012 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    What you have published Bernard Keane. Makes me wonder about the changes to what is required to obtain State surveillance warrants? Some of us may recall Brian Wiltshire was pointing out the enormous telephone exchanges which popped up. he was telling listeners they were all about computing space which with the advent of digital transfer of phone conversations meant everything could be screened compressed and reviewed. Who would think governments and corporations outwardly fighting for freedom and the democratic process would be perceived as that close to the activity of foreign death squads. Edward James

  • 9
    AR
    Posted Tuesday, 10 January 2012 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    I’m only surprised that people are surprised! The State in essence has a need to fear its citizens and has/will always use every means to monitor and persecute those deemed subversive.
    FFS, Kafka laid it out more than a century ago, in the days of quill pens & file cards - one doesn’t need to have offended or transgressed yer akshal LAW - when the mindset is, what is not explicitly allowed is forbidden! as Mr PotatoHead, the erstwhile, massively unmissed, A/G demonstrated with his acquiescence to allow surveillance of anyone, no matter how law abiding, if requested by the real paymasters.

  • 10
    Posted Wednesday, 11 January 2012 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    Important coverage here Bernard. I really think this topic is a strong point of yours, as champion of the web medium.

    My 2 c worth - can’t use my facebook page here in Vietnam. There is vn facebook but mine via Australia is not accessible. It probably doesn’t matter - the tropical climate has slowed me down so all the great pictures I see can’t be bothered getting the camera out. The one legged lady riding a bicycle with 3 mattresses on back - am unlikely to forget. Nor the lady with leg at right angles to knee, hopping, juxtapose literally 5 seconds later to a young female westerner with a medical knee brace loading into a taxi with family and good care. Unlikely to forget.

    These being the exceptions - Ho Chi Minh City of 8 million is one big tough dynamic city that makes Sydney traffic look like kindergarten. family of 4 to a motorbike. Cyclo (3 wheel bicycle) 3 hour tour was toxic and thrilling all at the same time. Mini hotel alley is alot of fun too in the Pham Ngu Lao area.

  • 11
    Edward James
    Posted Wednesday, 11 January 2012 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Some of us live in hope, that the majority of taxpayers will eventually re take control of their democratic process Federal State and Local ! I wondered where you had gone Tom! Edward James http://bit.ly/EJ_PNewsAds

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