WikiLeaks, the Spy Files and the Importance of Data

by Jordan Richardson on December 5, 2011

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s classic dystopian tale of the life of one Winston Smith, “nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.” While the book was a work of fiction, the connections it holds to our contemporary way of life can’t be ignored.

Data is king.

Even casual followers of The Telecom Blog know just how much import is placed on the gathering, hoarding and eventual selling of personal and professional data from all corners of the planet. Over the last while, I’ve reported on Facebook’s data policies. But it’s not just insatiable advertisers who are interested in the stuff, after all, as the world’s governments and authoritarian regimes have more than an ephemeral curiosity in where we are, what we’re doing, what we’re saying, and, most of all, what we’re thinking.

According to WikiLeaks, the “mass interception industry” has boomed since September 11, 2001. With The Spy Files, the watchdog website has released hundreds of documents from as many as 160 contractors in the surveillance industry. The contractors and companies sell technology to governments and regimes that are tracking people and monitoring individuals by their email, Internet browsing and mobile phone activities.

“These systems that are revealed in these documents show exactly the kind of systems that the Stasi wished they could have built,” said Jacob Appelbaum, former WikiLeaks spokesman and computer expert at the University of Washington. “These systems have been sold by Western companies to places for example like Syria, and Libya and Tunisia and Egypt. These systems are used to hunt people down and to murder.”

At least three Canadian companies are part of what WikiLeaks refers to as a “global industry.” They are listed as Vineyard Networks, AdvancedIO and Sandvine. In the first batch of documents released as part of Spy Files, these three companies do not appear.

For now, 86 out of the recorded companies on the website sell Internet monitoring products, 62 work within the field of telephone surveillance and at least 20 are providing technology to track text messages. Seven of the companies sell programs that allow users to take control of computers remotely.

According to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, thinking this unregulated, unencumbered industry of data acquisition and control does not affect “Western users” would be a mistake. “This in-depth investigation shows that this is not the relatively small industry it was 10 years ago. 9/11 has provided a license for European countries, for the U.S., for Canada, South Africa and others to develop spying systems that affect us all,” Assange told reporters in London.

Just how deep this particular rabbit hole is remains to be seen, of course, but it pays to remember the dark side of the technology many hold dear. For most of us, a smartphone is merely a mechanism that permits us to take pictures, go online and sometimes even make phone calls. For many others, however, smartphones and other gadgets are access points to a whole new dominion of controlling life – “at all levels.”

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Written by: Jordan Richardson. Follow by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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