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New database aims to track the global surveillance industry

Privacy International releases searchable database on more than 520 surveillance companies and the powerful tools they sell to governments

Privacy International, a London-based watchdog, has launched a new searchable database on hundreds of surveillance companies across the world, as part of an effort to track a murky industry. Created in collaboration with Transparency Toolkit, the Surveillance Industry Index (SII) includes information on more than 520 surveillance companies, as well as the technology they have exported to government agencies and telecommunications companies. Privacy International has also released a report that tracks the growth and development of the global surveillance industry since the 1970s.

The hope is that the SII will serve as an important tool for activists, journalists, and policymakers. Previous investigations conducted by Privacy International and other organizations have shed light on private surveillance companies and the powerful tools they sell to governments, but the industry remains largely shrouded in secrecy, with little oversight.

"one of the most important and polarizing issues of our time."

"State surveillance is one of the most important and polarizing issues of our time, yet the secrecy around it means it's a debate lacking reliable facts," Edin Omanovic, a research officer at Privacy International, said in a statement. "Understanding the role of the surveillance industry, and how these technologies are traded and used across the world, is crucial to not only understanding this debate, but also fostering accountability and the development of comprehensive safeguards and effective policy."

Information on the 528 companies in the SII was gathered from more than 1,500 brochures, as well as investigations and media reports. Entries on more than 600 technology exports were based on publicly available records and national export licensing data. In its report, however, Privacy International says that only Finland, the UK, and Switzerland have released useful statistics on export licensing, and that "[a]n extremely limited amount of government data has been released through freedom of information requests and public procurement records."

Most of the surveillance companies (122) are based in the US, followed by the UK (104), France (45), Germany (41), and Israel (27). The SII also features information on the types of products the companies sell, with the majority covering communications intelligence, intrusive spyware, and internet monitoring tools.

Included among the companies is Gamma International, which produces and sells the high-grade FinFisher spyware that has been used to target activists in countries like Bahrain and Ethiopia. The report published by Privacy International also includes case studies on exporters in the US and Israel, which is home to the largest number of surveillance companies on a per capita basis. Citing previous investigations, the report notes that Israeli companies have sold surveillance equipment to secret police in Uzbekistan and Kazakstan, while the US firms Packet Forensics and SS8 have been selling technology to both American agencies and governments abroad.

"We’re looking for increased transparency across the entire area."

Also included in the database is a Dubai-based company called Advanced Middle East Systems, which makes a system that, according to Omanovic, "can essentially intercept an entire country's internet traffic." The device, called Cerebro, taps fiber-optic cables to access web data. "It's that type of indiscriminate, suspicion-less surveillance that is particularly worrying," Omanovic said in a phone interview.

Privacy International first launched the SII in 2013, covering 338 companies, but it suffered technical problems after launch and was taken down. Joshua Franco, technology and human rights researcher at Amnesty International, describes the SII as "a tremendously valuable resource and a great initiative," adding that it could help Amnesty and other rights organizations to conduct more "proactive" research on the surveillance industry.

"Too often, we learn about some of these problematic surveillance exports only after some scandal has been uncovered in the press or by researchers," Franco said in a phone interview. Yet ultimately, he says, "the burden needs to be on states to ensure that there is greater transparency around the licensing and export of surveillance technology."

Omanovic says Privacy International will continue to update the SII with new information, and he hopes it will help shed light on an historically shadowy trade. "We’re looking for increased transparency across the entire area to help us understand the industry, but also to help us hold companies and governments accountable," Omanovic said.