TrendTechnology companies help governments augment surveillance capabilities

Published 26 August 2008

Technology companies have often been criticized for assisting governments in what many see as unwarranted intrusion, most notably in China; such criticism notwithstanding, these companies find rich business opportunities in the growing surveillance market

The United Kingdom is often referred to as the Surveillance Society. Here is an example: “THIS data allows investigators to identify suspects, examine their contacts, establish relationships between conspirators and place them in a specific location at a certain time.” The quote is taken from a statement by the  U.K. Home Office last week as it announced plans to give law-enforcement agencies, local councils, and other public bodies access to the details of people’s text messages, e-mails, and internet activity. The move followed its announcement in May that the Home Office was considering creating a massive central database to store all this data as a tool to help the security services tackle crime and terrorism.

Albion does not exactly find itself in splendid isolation: In the United States the FISA Amendments Act, which became law in July, allows the security services to intercept anyone’s international phone calls and emails without a warrant for up to seven days. Governments around the world are developing increasingly sophisticated electronic surveillance methods in a bid to identify terrorist cells or spot criminal activity.

Technology companies, however, in particular telecommunications firms and internet service providers, have often been criticized for assisting governments in what many see as unwarranted intrusion, most notably in China. Sch criticism notwithstanding, these technology companies find rich business opportunities in the growing surveillance market. German electronics company Siemens, for example, is now developing a complete “surveillance in a box” system called the Intelligence Platform, designed for security services in Europe andAsia. NewScientist’s Laura Margottini writes that the company has already sold the system to sixty countries (since there are 192 meber countries in the UN, this means that nearly one-third of the world’s government are eager to augment their surveillance capabilities)..

According to a document obtained by New Scientist, the system integrates tasks typically done by separate surveillance teams or machines, pooling data from sources such as telephone calls, e-mail and internet activity, bank transactions, and insurance records. It then sorts through this mountain of information using software that Siemens dubs “intelligence modules.” This software is trained on a large number of sample documents to pick out items such as names, phone numbers, and places from generic text. This means it can spot names or numbers that crop up alongside anyone already of interest to the authorities, and then catalogue any documents that contain such associates.

Once a person is being monitored, pattern-recognition software first identifies their typical behaviour,