The products of what Lucas calls the “lawful intercept” industry are developed mainly in Western nations such as the United States but are sold all over the world with few restrictions. This burgeoning trade has alarmed human rights activists and privacy advocates, who call for greater regulation because the technology has ended up in the hands of repressive governments such as those of Syria, Iran and China.
“You need two things for a dictatorship to survive: propaganda and secret police,” said Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), who has proposed bills to restrict the sale of surveillance technology overseas. “Both of those are enabled in a huge way by the high-tech companies involved.”
But the overwhelming U.S. government response has been to engage in the event not as a potential regulator but as a customer.
The list of attendees for this year’s local Wiretappers’ Ball, held in October at the North Bethesda Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, included more than 35 federal agencies, Lucas said. The list, he added, included the FBI, the Secret Service and every branch of the military, along with the IRS, the Agriculture Department and the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service. None would comment on their participation in the event.
Representatives of 43 countries also were there, Lucas said, as were many people from state and local law enforcement agencies. Journalists and members of the public were excluded.
On offer were products that allow users to track hundreds of cellphones at once, read e-mails by the tens of thousands, even get a computer to snap a picture of its owner and send the image to police — or anyone else who buys the software. One product uses phony updates for iTunes and other popular programs to infiltrate personal computers.
Many monitoring systems work by cloning e-mails or making records of Web traffic, allowing police or other users to track the use of key words. Others use stand-alone hardware to eavesdrop on nearby cellphone or WiFi signals.
The Commerce Department regulates exports of surveillance technology, but its ability to restrict the trade is limited. Intermediaries sometimes redirect sales to foreign governments, even those that are subject to economic sanctions, once products leave the United States. The State Department, which has spent $70 million in recent years to promote Internet freedom abroad, has expressed rising alarm over such transactions but has no enforcement authority.
U.S. law generally requires law enforcement agencies to obtain court orders when intercepting domestic Internet or phone communications. But such restrictions do not follow products when they are sold overseas.