WikiLeaked emails of IT firm show India as ‘really huge’ market for snooping, spyware

The Wire
July 10, 2015

Bangalore: Indian intelligence agencies and police forces are listed among the customers of an Italian company accused of selling spyware to repressive regimes.

Apart from the NIA, RAW, the intelligence wing of the Cabinet Secretariat and the Intelligence Bureau, the Gujarat, Delhi, Andhra and Maharashtra state police forces also earn a mention in the latest dump of files by WikiLeaks, which outs emails exchanged within the Milan-based IT company called Hacking Team, a purveyor of hacking and surveyor tools.

In August 2011, an Israeli firm named NICE, in alliance with Hacking Team, discusses opportunities to loop in the Cabinet Secretariat. In February 2014, Hacking Team’s employees seem to be discussing the organisation of a webinar in which senior officials of the NIA, RAW and IB will be participating. While this may be deflected as an intelligence agency’s need for counter-surveilling recruitment attempts by groups like the Islamic State, it is unclear why the Andhra Pradesh police asked for equipment to snoop on mobile phones (“cellular interception hardware solutions”).

In fact, in an email dated June 8, 2014, a hacking team employee named David Vincenzetti writes India “represents a huge – really huge and largely untapped – market opportunity for us”. Vincenzetti appears to have been spurred by former foreign minister Salman Khurshid’s infamous remark defending the American NSA’s widespread snooping and following Edward Snowden’s revelation that India was the fifth-most targeted nation: “It’s not really snooping.”

Most of the emails relevant to Indian interests, dating from 2011 to 2015, discuss the “world’s largest democracy” as representing a big opportunity for Hacking Team. They also betray the company’s interest in Pakistan as a client, especially referencing India’s alliance with the United States following the war in Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden’s assassination in Abbottabad.A rough translation of the following statement in one of the emails, dated May 4, 2011

Il Pakistan e’ un paese diviso, fortemente religioso, rivale dell’India ma alletato degli US per la guerra in Afganistan. Dagli US riceve ogni anno >$4bn per aiuti civili e armamenti. Potrebbe essere un cliente eccezionale.

… reads: “Pakistan receives more than $4 billion for civilian aid and arms from the US. It’s a divided country and very religious, and its rival India is allied with the US for the war in Afghanistan.”

Apart from discussing the Pakistani civilian government as a potential business partner for its strategic positioning, Hacking Team emails also reveal that the company performed demonstrations for the erstwhile UPA-II government on how to snoop on phones and other mobile devices, once in 2011 at the invitation of the Indian embassy in Italy.

The emails were obtained by a hacker (or a group of hackers) identified as PhineasFinisher, who/which dug into the Hacking Team’s internal communications and released them on July 6. PhineasFinisher also hacked the company’s Twitter account and renamed it Hacked Team, apart from launching a GitHub repository. The haul totaled over 400 GB, and included sensitive information from other infosec companies as the British-German Gamma Group and the French VUPEN. In fact, the haul includes a 40-GB tranche from Gamma.

The hacker(s) subsequently went on to declare that he/they would wait for Hacking Team to figure out how they system was hacked, failing which he/they will reveal it himself/themselves.

Apart from discussing the sale of interception equipment, the company was also considering a proposal to the Indian government to better wiretap data sent through RIM servers. RIM, or Research In Motion, is the Canadian company that owns Blackberry. For long, the Indian government was trying to get RIM to hand over users’ data exchanged over Blackberry devices for civilian surveillance purposes.

Il BBM non puo’ essere intercettato. Ma con RCS si’. [The BBM cannot be intercepted. But with RCS, yes.]

RCS stands for Hacking Team’s proprietary snooping software Remote Control System (RCS).

Ad ogni modo RCS offre possibilita’ ulteriori rispetto a qualunque sistema di intercettazione passiva come la cattura di dati che tipicamente non viaggiano via rete (rubrica, files, foto, SMS vecchi salvati, ecc.) e la possibilita’ di “seguire” un target indiano quando questo si reca all’estero (e.g., Pakistan). [However RCS offers a possibility more than that of any system of passive interception, with the capture of data that typically does not travel over the network (phonebook, files, photos, SMS old saved, etc.). And the possibility to “follow” an Indian target when it goes abroad (e.g., to Pakistan).]

Other state clients for RCS and other Hacking Team services include serial human-rights abusers Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan and Russia.

Although Hacking Team has gone on to vehemently deny the allegations, the information released in the WikiLeaks dump remains undeniable for now. And so, it’s unsettling at the least that the Indian government is seen to be in cahoots with a company that feeds on the persistence of human rights violations around the world.

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