Wikileaks has released hundreds of documents describing the products of Western intelligence contractors, in a new project called the Spy Files.
In the context of the Arab Spring, increasing attention is being paid to Western companies that sell or have sold surveillance systems to repressive regimes, or indeed to governments in Western nations. The Spy Files include brochures, catalogues, contracts and pricelists for the products of around 160 companies.
"International surveillance companies are based in the more technologically sophisticated countries, and they sell their technology on to every country of the world. This industry is, in practice, unregulated," Wikileaks said in a statement.
Wikileaks, which recently restarted its publishing system after a funding embargo caused a temporary shutdown of operations, said it had released 287 documents in the first batch on Thursday, but more will follow later this week and into 2012. The Spy Files site lets users search by document type, company, product type and date.
According to the open information group, the technology described in the Spy Files helps intelligence agencies, military forces and police authorities "silently… and secretly intercept calls and take over computers without the help of telecommunication providers", and track the physical location of mobile phone users, even when their devices are only on standby.
Companies whose products are described in the Spy Files include the UK's Gamma (spyware that exploited an iTunes flaw), France's Amesys (various interception devices and services) and South Africa's VasTech (mass passive surveillance).
Wikileaks pointed out that many of these companies sell their products to Western intelligence agencies for use on a very large scale.
"In traditional spy stories, intelligence agencies like MI5 bug the phone of one or two people of interest," the group said. "In the last ten years systems for indiscriminate, mass surveillance have become the norm. Intelligence companies such as VasTech secretly sell equipment to permanently record the phone calls of entire nations.
"Others record the location of every mobile phone in a city, down to 50 metres. Systems to infect every Facebook user, or smartphone owner of an entire population group are on the intelligence market."
The Spy Files project is being carried out in conjunction with a plethora of partners ranging from Privacy International and Bugged Planet to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Washington Post. Apart from potentially embarrassing governments and contractors, much of it seems designed to raise awareness of surveillance methods that are in use.
"Across the world, mass surveillance contractors are helping intelligence agencies spy on individuals and 'communities of interest' on an industrial scale," Wikileaks said. "The Wikileaks Spy Files reveal the details of which companies are making billions selling sophisticated tracking tools to government buyers, flouting export rules, and turning a blind eye to dictatorial regimes that abuse human rights."