by Christian Stork
In the era of Edward Snowden, new revelations about government snooping may fall on deaf ears. “Of course the NSA is watching/listening/recording” goes a common refrain among the exposé-weary.
But while the intrusive surveillance of the NSA and its British doppelganger, GCHQ, has been extensively documented, far less attention has been directed to private companies that hawk spyware, complete with sophisticated data-laundering features, to interested governments.
Now The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, a non-profit research organization that won a 2014 MacArthur Foundation grant, has begun to lift the veil of anonymity from these shadowy vendors. On March 4, the Lab released the third in a series of reports on Hacking Team, a Milan-based outfit that sells its premier Remote Control System (RCS) spyware to any government willing to meet its price.
According to the report, “RCS can record Skype calls, copy passwords, e-mails, files and instant messages, and turn on a computer or phone’s webcam and microphone to spy on nearby activity.”
Hacking Team markets its RCS program as “untraceable.” Computers infected with the stealth software are commanded to send data back to the snooping government through a chain of proxy servers located in other countries, so as to disguise the ultimate user of the hacked information.
Citizens Lab claims to have stripped away this disguise. In an earlier report, the Lab named 21 governments suspected of being former or current users of RCS. For example, the Ethiopian government has allegedly used the software to spy on journalists based in Washington, DC.
Other purported targets have included reporters in Morocco, human rights activists in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and a US-based critic of Turkish charter schools.
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