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Private eyes

Technology | Surveillance industry is learning to infiltrate tech devices, and making billions

Issue: "2012: The Year Ahead," Jan. 14, 2012

Are world governments watching us while we're online? Listening to our phone calls? The whistleblower website WikiLeaks released 287 documents on Dec. 1 that described services offered by scores of private "intelligence contractors" to infiltrate computers and conduct mass surveillance. "Intelligence agencies, military forces and police authorities are able to silently ... and secretly intercept calls and take over computers without the help or knowledge of the telecommunication providers," WikiLeaks stated on its website.

An Italian company mentioned in the documents, HackingTeam, creates Trojan horses that can intercept encrypted Skype conversations and remotely infect smartphones. The company boasts that its systems can monitor "hundreds of thousands of targets" at a time and are "used daily to fight crime in all the five continents." DigiTask, a German firm, builds software and mobile devices that can spy on emails and track activity at Wi-Fi hotspots.

The Wall Street Journal in November published online a "Surveillance Catalog" that includes brochures from 36 such companies, obtained from a surveillance conference held near Washington, D.C., earlier in the year. The private surveillance industry has boomed into a multibillion-dollar business, and although intelligence contractors generally insist they abide by export laws, their technologies have been found in use by oppressive regimes in countries such as China, Egypt, Libya, and Syria.

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Some systems reportedly enable government agencies to activate webcams and microphones in order to spy on a computer user in his or her home. Companies sometimes hype their products, of course, but we can be glad we're not the subjects of a Chinese or Middle Eastern government crackdown.

Pro-life assistant?

The most ballyhooed feature of Apple's new iPhone 4S is a virtual assistant named Siri. Ask Siri a question and she'll produce a list of helpful websites, offer a humorous retort, or weasel out of controversy. ("No comment," Siri answered when asked if she believed in heaven and hell.)

When some iPhone users asked, "Where can I get an abortion?" the virtual assistant drew a blank-or listed pro-life crisis pregnancy centers-eliciting outrage from pro-abortion groups. An Apple spokeswoman said the omission was unintentional, and that Siri was still being tweaked.

However, a search engine expert pointed out a likely cause for the glitch: Abortion providers rarely advertise the word abortion on their websites. Siri's search engine might simply be having trouble identifying true colors.

Log in, neighbor

In small towns it may seem a bit ridiculous, but two social networking services, Home Elephant and Nextdoor, are offering new ways to meet neighbors. Both offer communities a free, Facebook-like format to share news privately, sell items, and make local business recommendations. The networks include more than 6,000 neighborhoods from the United States and three dozen other countries.

A Pew Research Center study published last year found that only 42 percent of Americans knew most of their neighbors. "Already, interactions through Nextdoor have led to many new friends and drop-by visits," said a Nextdoor user from Austin, Texas, in a blurb on the company's website. "It's the virtual backyard fence or front porch conversations of years ago," said another, from Memphis, Tenn. One mom used the network to alert her community that her 16-year-old son had a case of contagious meningitis.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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