Selling spyware, making millions, breaking sanctions…

Undercover investigation reveals “legal intercept” firms all too keen to help rogue nations spy on their enemies.

Spy Merchants l Al Jazeera Investigations

Kudos to investigators at Al Jazeera who went undercover, approaching three companies on behalf of the governments of Iran and South Sudan – and found it all too easy to buy surveillance technology that could be used to spy on the countries’ citizens.

Of course, shipping surveillance and spying equipment to authoritarian regimes breaks international sanctions, as the devices could be used to spy upon activists, political rivals and dissidents.. and could potentially lead to them being interrogated, tortured or even killed.

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And if it wasn’t troubling enough that the companies seemed prepared to supply the likes of South Sudan and Iran with such technology – or at least find a way to waltz past red tape and suggest ways in which the surveillance equipment could be brought to banned countries – then it’s even more troubling that one of the companies approached simply didn’t care who the eventual customer might be.

In short, those selling the spying equipment at that particular Chinese-based firm didn’t care if it ended up in the hands of a dictatorship, organised criminal gang or terrorists.

And why should they care? After all, they’re looking potentially at orders totalling millions of dollars. All they have to worry about is ensuring that the hardware they provide doesn’t carry their logo, and that any documentation fails to mention that they were the manufacturers. And, if they need to sneak it past awkward government officials, maybe they can just fill in the forms to claim that the suitcase-sized box of tricks they’re selling is a Wi-Fi router rather than an IMSI catcher or sophisticated IP intercept system.

Of course, when faced with the evidence that Al Jazeera collected the firms concerned disassociated themselves with what was said on camera, and said that they only worked within the law.

Hmm.. I wonder.

Make sure to watch the Al Jazeera report, and for more discussion check out the latest episode of the “Smashing Security” podcast:

Smashing Security #016: 'Wonga wronga'

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Graham Cluley is an award-winning keynote speaker who has given presentations around the world about cybersecurity, hackers, and online privacy. A veteran of the computer security industry since the early 1990s, he wrote the first ever version of Dr Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit for Windows, makes regular media appearances, and is the co-host of the popular "Smashing Security" podcast. Follow him on Twitter, Mastodon, Threads, Bluesky, or drop him an email.

One comment on “Selling spyware, making millions, breaking sanctions…”

  1. Michael Ponzani

    They do it because they can. There's a good description of a surveillance state in an Islamist country when the Assassins were in power. It can be found in a book, "The Crusades Through Moslem Eyes.". I does help when there is only one gate to the walled town.

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