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Jan 10, 2012

Tracking the trackers: the cyber snoops working in Australia

Companies that have provided surveillance equipment to some of the world's worst régimes are operating in Australia

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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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