The age of snooping

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The age of snooping

In the slick marketing video released by its creator, the Remote Control System (RCS) dubbed Galileo is touted as the perfect solution for obtaining hard-to-access data. There is nothing really new about the technologies of the programs offered by the Milan-based Hacking Team, a hacking-for-hire company. But the company has packaged them perfectly for its law enforcement and intelligence agency customers around the world.

It would not have been impossible for Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) to assign one of its highly advanced technology companies to develop a similar surveillance system. But it was faster and cheaper to purchase a product already on the market, tested and tried. According to information disseminated by Wikileaks, the National Intelligence Service has been a customer of the Italian company since 2012. Under the customer code name “5163 Army Division,” it paid 686,400 euros ($760,000) for the company’s spyware program and maintenance service. Since it was created in 2003, Hacking Team has been providing tools to help 68 intelligence and law enforcement offices in 35 countries break into target computers and phones for surveillance purposes. Its customer list includes the U.S. State Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Embarrassingly, the for-profit hacking company became a hacking target itself. An unidentified intruder delved into its 400-gigabyte trove of digital files and on July 5 published online a list of emails, business contracts and invoices, as well as source codes for the spyware. Its customer list included a host of Middle Eastern, African and Balkan countries with authoritarian reputations. But liberal democratic societies like the United States, Spain, Switzerland and Luxemburg were also its clients.

The media and civic groups had a field day investigating the Edward Snowden-like leaks about the surveillance industry. Search for “Hacking Team” on Google and 5.8 million stories come up in the results. Over 200,000 stories are related to the company’s biggest customer, Mexico. The FBI is mentioned in 54,000 and Russia in 113,000. But Korea tops the search list with 1.69 million. The grumbling from the NIS that Korea was making too much of the story can almost be sympathized with.

According to Hacking Team’s explanation, its Galileo program can unleash viruses into target computers or mobile phones for the covert collection of emails, text messages, call histories, address books, files, calendars, notes, app lists and Internet searches. The system can remotely control the computers and phones to take screenshots and transmit the pictures, record audio conversations and even get on the phone’s GPS system to locate a target. In short, every move of the targeted entity or individual can come under scrutiny. Snowden’s revelations of a U.S. intelligence agency spying on civilians through the help of telecommunications companies is rudimentary compared with the work of Hacking Team. The former scoops up random information while Galileo is customized for specific targets.

Its programs can be very handy to catch terrorists, spies and criminals. But the RCS is a double-edged sword: It can be a useful and malignant weapon. Under the pretext of monitoring someone suspected of espionage activities, civilians’ privacy can be invaded. That is why Hacking Team has been labeled the enemy of the Internet Age.

We cannot criticize the NIS for purchasing a tool to keep abreast of the wireless times. But our spy agency is under fire more than its foreign counterparts because of its notorious track record. The public would be less interested in the leak if it had faith that the state agencies would not have used the tool for unethical purposes. It has no such faith. If the agency did nothing wrong, the official in charge of the purchase should have been patted on the back. Instead, he committed suicide. In today’s wired society, Big Brothers are everywhere. A company owner can tell his employees that he knows what they talk about on mobile messaging platform KakaoTalk. We must be aware that the state is capable of watching over our shoulders. We cannot avoid its scrutiny by avoiding suspicious mail and messages. We must change the regulations and laws to reflect the change in our times. We must establish a government that we can be confident will faithfully abide by the law.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 21, Page 31

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok

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