The cat’s been out of the bag with the reality of the surveillance state for a while now and big business is wasting no time in expanding the marketplace for private digital surveillance services. Now that the surveillance technology sector has had some time to develop with the capabilities afforded by the internet, which of course has led to the offering of cheaper prices, more national governments are able to participate in this new digital surveillance arms race between states than ever before.
Yesterday the Washington Post released an extensive article on the private surveillance industry’s campaign to sell cell-phone tracking software to numerous national governments of the world:
The technology works by exploiting an essential fact of all cellular networks: They must keep detailed, up-to-the-minute records on the locations of their customers to deliver calls and other services to them. Surveillance systems are secretly collecting these records to map people’s travels over days, weeks or longer, according to company marketing documents and experts in surveillance technology.
The world’s most powerful intelligence services, such as the National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ, long have used cellphone data to track targets around the globe. But experts say these new systems allow less technically advanced governments to track people in any nation — including the United States — with relative ease and precision.
Users of such technology type a phone number into a computer portal, which then collects information from the location databases maintained by cellular carriers, company documents show. In this way, the surveillance system learns which cell tower a target is currently using, revealing his or her location to within a few blocks in an urban area or a few miles in a rural one.
It is unclear which governments have acquired these tracking systems, but one industry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share sensitive trade information, said that dozens of countries have bought or leased such technology in recent years. This rapid spread underscores how the burgeoning, multibillion-dollar surveillance industry makes advanced spying technology available worldwide.
And just to give you an idea of the how these new private surveillance companies-for-hire are marketing their products, the Post reported:
The marketing brochure for Verint’s SkyLock system suggests using it in conjunction with Verint’s IMSI catcher, called the Engage GI2. Together, they allow government agencies “to accurately pinpoint their suspect for apprehension, making it virtually impossible for targets to escape, no matter where they reside in the world.”
Verint can install SkyLock on the networks of cellular carriers if they are cooperative — something that telecommunications experts say is common in countries where carriers have close relationships with their national governments. Verint also has its own “worldwide SS7 hubs” that “are spread in various locations around the world,” says the brochure. It does not list prices for the services, though it says that Verint charges more for the ability to track targets in many far-flung countries, as opposed to only a few nearby ones.
Among the most appealing features of the system, the brochure says, is its ability to sidestep the cellular operators that sometimes protect their users’ personal information by refusing government requests or insisting on formal court orders before releasing information.
“In most cases mobile operators are not willing to cooperate with operational agencies in order to provide them the ability to gain control and manipulate the network services given to its subscribers,” the brochure says. “Verint’s SkyLock is a global geo-location solution which was designed and developed to address the limitations mentioned above, and meet operational agency requirements.”