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New Wikileaks Release Helps Explain Who's Reading Your Email, and How

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, December 1 2011

Here and there, outlets like Wired's Threat Level blog or the Washington Post, with an ongoing focus on privacy in the Internet age, have peeled at the edges of the veneer that sits atop a vast and sophisticated intelligence apparatus that is monitoring people throughout the world with 21st-century technology — governed by 20th-century rules. Wired, for instance, has in recent days been covering mounting evidence that many Android phones appear to bear carrier-installed, low-level monitoring software, tracking users' every call and keystroke without their knowledge or consent.

Today, in cooperation with the Washington Post in the U.S. and other newspapers throughout the world, Wikileaks has released a tranche of information that does more to explain the industry that powers this new reality. The War Logs or leaked State Department cables this isn't; instead, the document-dropping organization has published a collection of brochures, contracts, price lists and other quasi-public materials accumulated from a number of security and surveillance firms. Combined with what is already known and with some reporting, the documents paint this picture for the Washington Post:

Of the 51 companies whose sales brochures and other materials were obtained and released by WikiLeaks, 17 have secured U.S. government contracts in the past five years for agencies such as the FBI, the State Department and the National Security Agency, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal procurement documents.

Privacy experts say the legal framework governing the industry has not kept up with its growth, and products sold for legitimate purposes, such as blocking access to certain Web sites or investigating sexual predators, can easily be adapted for broader surveillance purposes.

The latest release from Wikileaks appears to do more to fill in a few gaps in understanding than to break new news — as turned out to be the case with the State Department communications that Wikileaks released incrementally over the course of the past year — except that it also served to break a self-imposed silence from the organization. With its central figure, Julian Assange, facing extradition to Sweden and what the organization described as mounting legal bills, Wikileaks announced last month that it would suspend the release of new information to focus instead on fund-raising and, presumably, fighting accusations of sexual abuse leveled against Assange by two women in Sweden earlier this year.