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How Hacktivism Led to Discovering Digital Arms Dealers

Apr 04, 20127 mins
Data and Information SecurityEnterprise ApplicationsHacking

Under Surveillance: Investigating digital arms dealers is a documentary that globe hops from France to Libya, Syria, London and ends pointing a finger at a digital arms dealer in the USA. Entire countries are monitored for voices of dissent against their government, places where bloggers are tortured and killed for telling the truth, for fighting for freedom. These mass surveillance systems would not have been uncovered had it not been for hacktivists. (#OpBullAmesys)

You’ve heard of Orwell’s Thought Police? Electronic surveillance is so bad in some countries, the people are scared to dream . . . afraid the government has found a way to monitor their dreams. Who do we have to thank for this? Digital arms dealers!

According to Under Surveillance: Investigating digital arms dealers, computers and smartphones can turn into deadly weapons for those who use them. Invisible spies, better known to geeky folks as spyware, “starts with spying on one person and then blows into spying on an entire country.” The investigation began by showing vendor after vendor selling ‘secret’ software digital arms, companies who shooed away the reporter/director Paul Moreira and his cameraman.  

Although a South African VAStech spyware dealer confirmed the technology can “intercept every single communication” and that entire countries can be spied upon, he added that these digital weapons (camera flashed to social media monitoring sign) must not be sold to countries who will turn the weapons against its people. Yet VAStech “are directly suspected of having sold the product straight to Gaddafi, and they are not the only ones.”

Indeed a BBC journalist went into Gaddafi ‘s former spy headquarters and found English descriptions of Internet spying operations that had been conducted. Examples in English showed capabilities such as recording a target’s communications and social networks, and even searching in the past for newly identified targets. Another showed off the possibility to locate any person owning a cell phone in the country, even in idle mode, with an accuracy around 200 feet and an option down to 30 feet resolution. All of the people’s positions could be archived in the central database for further analysis. But such digital arms sellers do not like to use the word ‘people’ and instead use words like ‘targets.’ Despite posters being in English, the electronic surveillance and interception system, named “Eagle,” was sold to Gaddafi’s political police by French company Amesys and covertly operated by French Intelligence. (#OpBullAmesys)

One Amesys’ Eagle program technician agreed to a ‘secret’ interview, but first he removed the battery and SIM card from his cell phone because he knows only too well that he could be wiretapped/eavesdropped even with his phone off. The tech admitted that to sell or install such surveillance systems, you must leave ethics behind.

In an interview about Amesys’ Eagle program with “Bruno Samtmann – Business Manager, AMESYS,” Moreira bluntly pointed out that due to the Amesys technology sold to a dictator, people were beaten, tortured and killed. Samtmann denied it, “It’s clearly function creep.” He claimed Amesy worked within ‘a very diplomatic and legal framework with Libya.’ He added, “Mr. Moreira, what actions could I take since I don’t operate the product. I’m not behind the screens. I don’t build queries.”

The excuse for setting up the total surveillance system used on an entire country? The fight against terrorism . . . sound familiar? But the irony is that the French spying center was given to a terrorist! Another man interviewed who helped set up the sales claimed selling surveillance is the best way to help a country become democratic. But Amesys was used to spy on freedom fighters, the individuals fighting for democracy.

The reporter persevered since none of the bloggers tortured, imprisoned or killed were terrorists, instead they fought against Al-Qaeda. Although the Amesys business manager denied making a pact with the devil (Gaddafi), he admitted perhaps Bull – Amesys sold the devil a trident or two. A few weeks after the interview, Bull – Amesys officially announced giving up its Internet spying activity. According to a press conference held in London, OWNI said the Amesys’ system was not only used to spy on Libyans who lived in Libya, but also to spy on those living in London, in England, and in the USA. See Spy Files on Amesys for more.

A manual for a German digital arms surveillance system makes no false claims about using the spying only to hunt for and to identify terrorists, criminals, or pedophiles. Instead, written in black and white, the documentation states, this “technology is also useful for monitoring political opponents.” Indeed. Investigating Digital Arms Dealers stated, “Dissidents in dictatorships will have to learn to survive in this new environment. Spied, geolocalized, under surveillance, they have to zigzag between the stitches of the digital net as a matter of life or death.”

But still, the Blue Coat 9000 surveillance system, the sale of which a Department of Commerce investigation found was redirected by an individual with access to it after delivery, was used to spy on an entire country. The place is Syria, a land where tanks are sent against any dissidents, a country in which if your SIM card is in your smartphone, the government sends military to locate and bomb voices of dissent. What is being monitored? Every way the truth instead of propaganda might reach the world; opposition websites, or social networks where pictures and videos can be posted.

It was Anonymous hacktivists who discovered the Blue Coat systems were monitoring ALL of the Syrian population. The computer screen shows the word  “Observed” in red no matter what website was visited. The two hackers then decided to alert all Syrian users and hijacked all Syrian Internet traffic to a website that loads showing, “Your Internet activity is being monitored.” This was followed by a second page that explained how they were being spied upon. To learn more, see Spy Files on Blue Coat.

Although U.S. authorities have since opened an investigation into Blue Coat’s involvement with Syria, according to very recent Blue Coat hype, Canada just gave Blue Coat EAL4+ security level certification due to “meeting or exceeding the most stringent government and military requirements.” Yet in Reuters Tribute to Syrian cyberactivists, it states that Blue Coat was used in attempts to “muzzle the e-revolution” and “many journalists and Syrian bloggers were arrested and tortured in detention.”

In conclusion, the documentary said without hacktivists, people would not have known Blue Coat was in the hands of the Syrian secret police. Without the fall of Tripoli, no one would have heard about the Amesys system spying on an entire country. The video jumped to London where Assange asked at a press conference, “Who here has an iPhone? Who here has a Blackberry? Who here uses Gmail? Well…you are all screwed!”

Why are these mass surveillance systems sold? Allegedly digital interception is important in order to identify criminals, terrorists and pedophiles. In reality, they are sold for greed, for fat and happy wallets of businesses lacking ethics about hunting out and stopping voices of dissent which call out for freedom. Oh but digital arms spyware companies don’t call anyone people, instead they use TARGETS, and they don’t take any responsibility for people’s torture and death.

The cries of censorship, of social media monitoring, and of police state surveillance did not happen to these countries overnight, so you might stop to consider that and the See Something Say Something, You might be a terrorist if . . . lists. And in the U.S. right now, SOPA’s Big Brother has come to town claiming censorship laws are to fight cyberterrorism.

If you are so inclined, download and watch Under Surveillance: Investigating digital arms dealers. The movie has been translated thanks to @VizFoSho, @Sersnow3, @memoryne, @nobru42, @DollFoSho and @lamoustache; here’s more about various languages and available subtitles.

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.