“How many of you here have an iPhone, a Blackberry or any other mobile device?'' WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asked surveying a hall full of people at the City University here on Thursday. As hand after hand went up, he told them that everyone of them, irrespective of what kind of mobile device they carried, was a potential target of spying.
This was how stark the threat from a booming multi-billion dollar global mass surveillance industry was, Mr. Assange said as he released a cache of 287 files providing a rare glimpse into how the industry was operating without any checks.
The Spy Files, spanning 25 countries, are first of a series of sensitive data that WikiLeaks plans to publish in coming months.
“Working with Bugged Planet and Privacy International, as well as media organisations from six countries – ARD in Germany, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK, The Hindu in India, L'Espresso in Italy, OWNI in France and the Washington Post in the U.S. Wikileaks is shining a light on this secret industry that has boomed since September 11, 2001 and is worth billions of dollars per year. WikiLeaks has released 287 documents today [Thursday], but the Spy Files project is ongoing and further information will be released this week and into next year,'' Mr. Assange said at a crowded press conference.
N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, speaking through a video-link, expressed concern over a fast growing and completely unregulated surveillance industry in India. At least two Indian companies were selling surveillance technology without any regulation.
“We are very concerned about our privacy violations,'' he said.
Mr. Ram said that working with WikiLeaks had been a “very valuable experience.” The issue highlighted by WikiLeaks was of “great international significance'' and of “significance to India.”
Mr. Assange said that it might sound like something out of Hollywood but mass interception systems built by Western “intelligence contractors'' were a reality. Over the past decade, the surveillance industry had grown from a covert operation which primarily supplied equipment to government intelligence agencies such as the NSA in America and Britain's GCHQ, into a huge transnational business.
Dramatically illustrating the threat, Mr. Assange said that potentially everyone who carried any mobile device was a sitting duck for anyone wanting to spy on them. The threat to investigative journalism from these new and covert surveillance techniques was particularly dire.
“The only way we are going to win this war is by developing counter-surveillance systems,'' he said.
WikiLeaks, which itself has been a victim of surveillance by intelligence agencies and their proxies and has had its site hacked, is in the process of developing a more secure system to submit information to the site.
Mr. Assange said that international surveillance companies were based in the more technologically sophisticated countries, and sold their technology to every country of the world. Intelligence agencies, military forces and police authorities were able to silently and secretly intercept calls and take over computers without the help or knowledge of the telecommunication providers.
Experts who worked on the files called for new laws to regulate export of surveillance technology.
“Western governments cannot stand idly by while this technology is still being sold,” said Eric King of the Privacy International campaign group.
Jacob Appelbaum, a computer expert at the University of Washington, said the systems revealed in the files were as deadly as murder weapons.
“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,” he said, while Pratap Chatterjee of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism said a French firm offered to sell such systems to the erstwhile Qadhafi regime to spy on dissidents living in Britain.
Mr. Assange warned that with entire populations being subjected to surveillance nobody anywhere in the world was safe anymore.
“In traditional spy stories, intelligence agencies like MI5 bug the phone of one or two people of interest. In the last 10 years systems for indiscriminate, mass surveillance have become the norm. Intelligence companies such as VASTech secretly sell equipment to permanently record the phone calls of entire nations. Others record the location of every mobile phone in a city, down to 50 metres. Systems to infect every Facebook user, or smart-phone owner of an entire population group are on the intelligence market,'' said a statement on official WikiLeaks Spy Files site.