Through a tiny Skype connection, a tech company in Hong Kong is trying to sell us state surveillance equipment.
“I’ve already turned it on,” said Edward Tian, ââholding a backpack containing a box and cables. “It’s the antenna. It’s the battery [â¦] Everything is that simple. “
This is a $ 15,000 IMSI sensor operated through an Android app. Tian shows us the user interface in a grainy video. He presses an app button and information about a bunch of cell phones in the area is displayed on the screen. It has their IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity, a unique identifier for their SIM card), IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity â the same for their device), and even full phone numbers.
IMSI sensors are fairly well-established surveillance technologies used by law enforcement around the world. The portable device essentially acts like a fake mobile phone mast: when turned on, it captures the IMSI of every phone in the area. From there, it can intercept messages, calls and data, and prevent phones from functioning, among other functions.
IMSI sensors are illegal to exploit (unless you are a law enforcement officer), although many hackers claim made them. But we pretended to be businessmen in our investigation as a Vice News Documentary to see if Tian’s company, HK Medsourcing, was willing to sell them to private companies.
“Of course,” he replied. “Yeah. Some private companies.”
âA trading company or an investigative company, any company like this,â he added.
Emphasizing that we were not from the state, we asked him if he could make arrangements for us as well.
“We are not very clear on the local law, on the recommendations,” he said. âSo you need to make sure you’re using it legally. And we make arrangements according to your needs. This is not a problem. “
Tian’s company, HK Medsourcing, is one of many companies filling a gap in the tactical surveillance market.
Western companies that sell surveillance technology must obtain export licenses that effectively restrict the sale of equipment to repressive regimes and individuals, under a 41-state pact called the Arrangement by Wassenaar.
It is not always easy. Export control data show that the UK has licensed Â£ 5.2million ($ 7.5million) of “telecommunications interception equipment” over a 5-month period last year to countries like Qatar, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates, places barely with honorable human rights records.
Government contracts from repressive regimes are lucrative, however, and it seems inevitable that if Western companies face criminal prosecution for exporting surveillance technology to places like Syria, unregulated companies will fill the void.
HK Medsourcing, for example, claimed to have participated in a tender for the Bangladeshi police the week before our call – an outfit that had failed to get an IMSI Catcher from a Swiss company after being blocked by the government.
The company also claimed to have done business with Russia, African countries, countries in South America and many private companies and resellers. things like IMSI Catchers, geolocation tools, malware, and spyware.
“There is a whole range of groups that would be interested in these kinds of tools,” said Edin Omanovic, surveillance technology export manager for Privacy International. âNot just individuals, but private military companies and private security agencies. For example, a private security agency that runs a prison, or a personal security agency for a political leader, may very well find uses for it. ‘tactical surveillance equipment. “
The lawful interception industry is expected to reach $ 1.3 billion by 2019, according to Markets and Markets research firm, up from $ 251 million in 2014. But the emergence of a black market raises the question of who else will benefit from the technology and who will benefit from it.
“It’s a really big deal,” said Frederick Tonelli of Spectradome, which sells a range of technology, including tactical surveillance devices. When we met him at Milipol 2015, a global state security exhibition, he also noted the phenomenon of Chinese companies selling to the public on the black market. His business only sells to legitimate buyers in the state.
“We are constantly researching and developing new systems and we try not to divulge too much information because this type of information could be used not only to reverse engineer our systems, but also to find a way to combat them”, a- he declared. “And we give the good guys a tactical advantage.”