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← Inside the massive (and unregulated) world of surveillance tech

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Showing Revision 7 created 12/11/2020 by Erin Gregory.

  1. A few years ago,
  2. an American defense consultant I know
  3. told me about a trip
    he took to Uzbekistan.
  4. His role there was to help sell technology
  5. that the Uzbek government could use
    to spy on its own citizens.
  6. He eventually shared with me
    the marketing material
  7. he'd presented to the Uzbek government.
  8. One glossy brochure featured technology
    that could not just intercept phone calls,
  9. but identify the caller,
  10. regardless of what phone number
    they were using,
  11. based on their unique voiceprint,
  12. and then identify their exact
    geographic location.
  13. This is a guy who had been involved
    with the arms trade for years.

  14. He wasn't some Hollywood-type gunrunner
    doing backroom deals.
  15. He was just a guy that worked
    with legitimate Western companies
  16. to help sell their weapons abroad.
  17. But he wasn't bothered
    by marketing this sort of technology.
  18. For him, it was just the next step
    in the arms trade.
  19. And it was even easier than, say,
    selling weapons to Iraq,
  20. because it didn't require
    an export license
  21. from the US State Department,
  22. the way most arms sales would.
  23. It turns out that these
    tools of surveillance
  24. are almost completely unregulated,
  25. because as of today,
    they're not defined as weapons.
  26. But they should be, and we need
    to regulate them that way.
  27. I'm a journalist
    who has spent the last two decades

  28. looking at how the military
    and intelligence world
  29. spurs the development
    of new science and technology.
  30. I've tracked the emergence of new weapons
  31. and looked to see what happens
  32. when companies start to market
    these weapons abroad.
  33. But what is a weapon
    in the information age?
  34. We know that armed drones are weapons,
  35. missiles and bombs are weapons,
  36. but the State Department
    actually classifies
  37. broad categories
    of technologies as weapons.
  38. So for example, a scientist going abroad
    on an oceanographic research vessel,

  39. they want to take
    the latest night-vision goggles?
  40. That, according to the State Department,
    is potentially a weapon.
  41. Why?
  42. Well, because though night-vision goggles
    are used today by scientists
  43. and hunters around the world,
  44. it was a capability
    first developed for the military.
  45. And yet, tools of surveillance

  46. that an authoritarian regime could use
    to spy on its own citizens,
  47. on dissidents, on journalists,
  48. that, according to the US government
    today, is not a weapon.
  49. And yet, these tools of surveillance
  50. are part of a growing secretive
    multi-billion-dollar industry.
  51. The genesis of this spy bazaar
    goes back some 18 years,

  52. to a Hilton hotel in northern Virginia,
  53. just a few miles away
    from the US Central Intelligence Agency.
  54. A few dozen people,
    mostly dark-suited men,
  55. gathered there in the spring of 2002
  56. for a conference with
    the unassuming name of ISS World.
  57. You know, at first glance, this conference
    probably looked like dozens of events
  58. that used to take place
    around the Washington, DC area.
  59. But this event was unique.
  60. ISS stands for Intelligence
    Support Systems,
  61. and the people who were there
  62. were from companies
    that built technologies to spy
  63. on private communications.
  64. In other words, these were
    sort of wire-tappers for hire.
  65. And the reason they were there
    was that less than a year earlier,

  66. the 9/11 terrorist attacks
    on New York and Washington
  67. had spurred the Congress
    to press through legislation
  68. known as the Patriot Act.
  69. This gave the government
    broad new authorities
  70. to monitor communications.
  71. Emails, internet activity, phone calls,
  72. even financial transactions.
  73. This created an instant demand for data.
  74. And in the true American
    entrepreneurial spirit,
  75. an industry rose up
    to help collect this data.
  76. But back in 2002,

  77. this was still a pretty modest affair.
  78. Only about 10 percent
    of the world's population
  79. was even online using the internet.
  80. So most of what was being collected
    were simple emails and phone calls
  81. over landlines and cell phones.
  82. But over the next few years,
  83. the way that we communicate
    began to change rapidly.
  84. There was the introduction
    of Skype, Facebook
  85. and then, crucially, the iPhone,
  86. and within a few years,
  87. billions of us were walking around
    with little computers in our pockets
  88. that do everything
    from monitor our exercise habits
  89. to help us find romantic partners.
  90. And suddenly, you didn't necessarily need
    the advanced capability
  91. of the National Security Agency
    or big telecoms
  92. to monitor everyone's communication.
  93. In some cases,
  94. all you needed was access
    to that device in their pockets.
  95. And that gave birth to an entirely
    new type of industry.
  96. You know, not many companies
    can build missiles or aircraft,

  97. but it doesn't take a lot of capital
    to create software
  98. that can hack into someone's smartphone.
  99. Computer hackers
    have been around for years,
  100. but now their skills could be used
    to build technologies
  101. that were in high demand
    by law enforcement
  102. and intelligence agencies.
  103. And soon, dozens
    and even hundreds of companies
  104. were getting into this
    wire-tappers' market.
  105. And that little conference in Virginia,
  106. it grew and soon became known
    as the Wiretappers' Ball.
  107. Well, not much was known
    about the Wiretappers' Ball

  108. in those early years,
  109. because the conferences
    were closed to everyone
  110. except the companies
    and their government customers.
  111. But journalists did begin to see
    and hear reports
  112. of companies getting
    into this private spy market.
  113. Spooky entrepreneurs
    going around the world,
  114. doing deals,
  115. often with authoritarian regimes.
  116. And it was, from the start,
    a really loosely regulated market.

  117. Some countries do require permission
    to sell these technologies abroad,
  118. but rarely with the type of scrutiny
    that is given to traditional arms.
  119. So for example, the Italian-based
    company Hacking Team
  120. reportedly sold its technology
    to authoritarian regimes
  121. in Egypt and Kazakhstan.
  122. The Israeli-based company NSO Group
    has reportedly sold its technology
  123. to the regime in Saudi Arabia,
  124. which has been accused of harassing,
  125. and even, in one case,
    killing one of its political opponents.
  126. And we do think of weapons
    as things that kill people.
  127. But in the information age,
  128. some of the most powerful weapons
    are things that can track and identify us.
  129. This is something that the Pentagon
    and CIA have recognized for years,

  130. and they've tried to build technologies
  131. that can track people,
    suspected terrorists, around the globe.
  132. The Pentagon has invested
    in something called smart dust,
  133. little microsensors
    the size of specs of dust
  134. that you could scatter on people
    without them knowing it,
  135. and then use it to track their location.
  136. The Pentagon, through
    its venture capital firm,
  137. has invested in a beauty products company
    once featured in "Oprah Magazine"
  138. to build a device that could
    surreptitiously collect DNA
  139. just by swiping across the skin.
  140. But something remarkable has happened
    over the past decade.

  141. In many cases, what the private
    marketplace has been able to do
  142. has far outstripped what the Pentagon
    or CIA even thought was possible.
  143. Back in 2008,
  144. the Pentagon had a secretive database
    of DNA from terrorists.
  145. It had about 80,000 samples.
  146. Well, the private company AncestryDNA
  147. today has samples
    from over 15 million people.
  148. 23andMe, the second-largest
    genealogical database,
  149. has samples from over 10 million people.
  150. So now, maybe you don't need
    these James Bond-worthy techniques
  151. of collecting DNA
  152. if we're willingly handing it over
    to private companies
  153. and even paying for the honor of doing it.
  154. Well, what could you do
    with a sample of someone's DNA?

  155. In the United States and China,
  156. researchers are working
    on using DNA samples
  157. to build images of people's faces.
  158. So if you pair DNA
    with facial recognition technology,
  159. you have the basis of a really
    powerful surveillance system
  160. that could be used to track individuals
    or entire ethnic groups.
  161. And if you think that sounds
    a little bit paranoid,
  162. keep in mind that the Pentagon
    last year sent out a memo
  163. to all of its service members,
  164. warning them precisely not to use
    those commercial DNA kits
  165. over concerns that information
    could be used to track them
  166. or their family members.
  167. And yet, even with the Pentagon
    raising concerns about this technology,
  168. almost nothing has been done
    to reign in this market.
  169. One American company, Clearview AI,

  170. has been collecting billions
    of images of people's faces
  171. from across the internet,
  172. like those pictures you post on Instagram
    of you and your friends and family,
  173. and then selling its facial
    recognition services
  174. to US government
    and law-enforcement agencies.
  175. And even if you think
  176. that's a perfectly acceptable
    application of this technology,
  177. there's nothing to stop them
    from selling to private individuals,
  178. corporations or even foreign governments.
  179. And that's exactly
    what some companies are doing.
  180. That Wiretappers' Ball
    that started in northern Virginia?

  181. Today, it's held in multiple cities
    around the globe.
  182. Thousands of people now attend
    the ISS trainings and conferences.
  183. And more of the companies showing up
    are coming from the Middle East and China.
  184. The spy bazaar has gone global.
  185. And at arms shows now around the world,
  186. you'll see companies displaying
    facial recognition technology
  187. and phone hacking software,
  188. displaying right next
    to traditional arms manufacturers
  189. with tanks and missiles.
  190. And walking around these arms shows,
  191. it's pretty easy to go down
    dystopian rabbit holes,
  192. thinking about future
    surveillance technology
  193. that will track our every move.
  194. And I remember one
    Pentagon adviser telling me
  195. that what the military really needed
    were space-based satellites
  196. that could track people anywhere on earth
    based just on their DNA.
  197. It's enough to make you invest
    in tinfoil hats.
  198. But the truth is,

  199. we don't know what sort
    of technology the future will bring.
  200. But we know that today,
    in the absence of regulation,
  201. this marketplace is already exploding.
  202. And in fact, one of those companies
    accused of selling surveillance technology
  203. to authoritarian regimes,
  204. today, it's offering to help track
    those infected with COVID-19.
  205. And of course, technology does offer
    the tantalizing promise
  206. of helping control a pandemic
    through contact tracing.
  207. But it also opens up another door,
    to privatized mass surveillance.
  208. So what do we do
    about this private spy bazaar?

  209. We can hide, go offline,
  210. get off social media,
    ditch our smartphones,
  211. go live in a cave,
  212. but the truth is, we're not trained
    to be professional spies,
  213. we can't live under false identities
    or with no identities.
  214. And even real spies are having a hard time
    staying below the radar, these days.
  215. It doesn't matter how many
    passports Jason Bourne has
  216. if his face or DNA
    is in someone's database.
  217. But if even governments have lost control
    of the tools of spying,
  218. is there anything we can do about it?
  219. One argument I've heard

  220. is that even if the US
    were to restrict companies
  221. from selling this sort
    of technology abroad,
  222. companies based in China
    might simply step in.
  223. But we regulate the arms trade today,
  224. even if we do it imperfectly.
  225. And in fact, there was a multilateral
    proposal several years ago
  226. to do just that,
  227. to require export licenses
    for surveillance software.
  228. The United States
    was among those countries
  229. that agreed to these
    voluntary regulations,
  230. but back in Washington,
    this proposal has simply languished.
  231. We have an administration
    that would rather sell more weapons abroad
  232. with fewer restrictions,
  233. including to some of those countries
  234. accused of abusing
    surveillance technology.
  235. I think to move forward,
    we would need to revive that proposal,

  236. but even go one step further.
  237. We need to fundamentally change
    how we think of surveillance technology
  238. and define these tools as weapons.
  239. This would allow government
  240. to regulate and control
    their sale and export
  241. the way that they control
    traditional arms,
  242. advanced aircraft and missiles.
  243. But that means recognizing
    that technology that tracks who we are,

  244. what we do, what we say,
  245. and even in some cases, what we think,
  246. is a form of advanced weaponry.
  247. And these weapons
    are growing too powerful,
  248. available to the highest bidder,
  249. and according to the whims
    of the spy bazaar.
  250. Thank you.