The heart of tech

This article was published on April 10, 2017


Undercover investigation confirms spyware companies are super shady

Undercover investigation confirms spyware companies are super shady
Rachel Kaser
Story by

Rachel Kaser

Internet Culture Writer

Rachel is a writer and former game critic from Central Texas. She enjoys gaming, writing mystery stories, streaming on Twitch, and horseback Rachel is a writer and former game critic from Central Texas. She enjoys gaming, writing mystery stories, streaming on Twitch, and horseback riding. Check her Twitter for curmudgeonly criticisms.

Investigative reporters with Al Jazeera went undercover to buy spyware from three different companies on behalf of the governments of Iran and South Sudan — and it was way easier than it should have been.

In case you didn’t know — I sure didn’t — it’s against global sanctions to sell surveillance tools to countries with a history of human rights violations. After all, you’d basically be handing them a weapon to use against their citizens. But, just by asking the right questions, Al Jazeera‘s people were able to buy millions of dollars worth of spyware from three companies — two in Italy, one in China.

When they were asked, the companies assured their customer that they were able to work around laws by using shell companies and other third parties. The president of one of the Italian companies told the reporter:

If I have an end user statement, signed in Tanzania, and then if Tanzania give this system, as a gift, to South Sudan, (this) is something I can’t control as a company.

They also packaged their tools as “dual-use technology,” something that has multiple uses you might not necessarily mention — kind of like that “back massager” in your drawer.

The companies also don’t bother to find out who the end user of their product is, and sometimes deliberately avoid knowing. When asked, the cofounder of the Chinese company said:

We don’t know who is the private company and who is the end user. And we don’t care about it. This way is good, because we have done it before.

So if you really needed something to keep you awake at night, just imagine how easy it was for a few buyers who admitted upfront that they were repping for the worst people in the world to get ahold of tools that let them monitor all your internet and phone traffic. Enjoy the insomnia!