Spend enough time investigating the global surveillance industry, and you’ll come to realize that reality is far stranger than fiction.
A previous Motherboard investigation into the cache of documents leaked after the hack of Hacking Team revealed a huge network of companies reselling spyware around the world.
But the Italian firm, which makes the governmental hacking suite Remote Control System, is barely a drop in the bucket of the massive market for invasive—and often weird—surveillance tech.
Consider the comically-creepy “Babyseat,” a video surveillance device disguised to look like a baby’s car seat. According to its brochure, Babyseat features a hidden camera with full pan, tilt and zoom capability, which can be remotely viewed and controlled in real-time via GSM mobile internet connection and records to a “discreetly mounted” Compact Flash card.
The Babyseat is just one of the many products being offered by various surveillance vendors to the government of Colombia
It’s sold by LMW Electronics, an obscure British company that was acquired in 2012 by another UK surveillance firm, Digital Barriers. According to Digital Barriers’ website, LMW provides “advanced video capture and transmission technology capabilities to the international law enforcement and military markets” with products including “video cameras, outstations, vehicle and body-worn equipment, and controller units.”
The Babyseat is just one of the many products being offered by various surveillance vendors to the government of Colombia, according to a new report (PDF) from the UK-based watchdog group Privacy International.
The report reveals about a dozen foreign firms and local resellers working together to supply Colombian police and military with everything from fiber-optic cable taps, to network monitoring software, to more “old-school” tactical spy tech, like covert recording devices.
One of the country’s more interesting suppliers is DreamHammer, a California-based company that develops software for military drones and sells to the Colombian government in collaboration with a local partner, Emerging Technologies Corporation.
The government also seems to be a big fan of IMSI-catchers, the mass surveillance devices better known in the US as “Stingrays” that track phones and intercept calls and texts by posing as cellphone towers.
Those devices are bought through several foreign firms including UK-based Smith Myers, New Zealand-based Spectra Group, and the Finnish branch of the Canadian telecommunications company Exfo. Several of the companies were also responsible for helping build and maintain PUMA, an untargeted mass surveillance system run by the country’s criminal investigative agency, DIJIN, according to the report.
The sales are notable given Colombia’s history of illegal wiretapping and surveillance scandals. In 2009, it was revealed that the now-dissolved Administrative Security Department (DAS) had conducted illegal surveillance and intimidation on over 600 people including judges, journalists, political opposition members, human rights activists, and others.
That apparently hasn’t slowed the Colombian surveillance trade, however. Just like the Hacking Team leak showed, governments are keen on buying some of the wackiest and more invasive spy toys imaginable, and the global surveillance industry is more than willing to provide.