David Kushner reports: The Blackwater of surveillance, the Hacking Team is among the world’s few dozen private contractors feeding a clandestine, multibillion-dollar industry that arms the world’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies with spyware. Comprised of around 40 engineers and salespeople who peddle its goods to more than 40 nations, the Hacking Team epitomizes what Reporters Without Borders, the international anti-censorship group, dubs the “era of digital mercenaries.”
The Italian company’s tools — “the hacking suite for governmental interception,” its website claims — are marketed for fighting criminals and terrorists. But there, on Marquis-Boire’s computer screen, was chilling proof that the Hacking Team’s software was also being used against dissidents. It was just the latest example of what Marquis-Boire saw as a worrying trend: corrupt regimes using surveillance companies’ wares for anti-democratic purposes.
When Citizen Lab published its findings in the October 2012 report “Backdoors are Forever: Hacking Team and the Targeting of Dissent?” the group also documented traces of the company’s spyware in a document sent to Ahmed Mansoor, a pro-democracy activist in the United Arab Emirates. Privacy advocates and human rights organizations were alarmed. “By fueling and legitimizing this global trade, we are creating a Pandora’s box,” Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, told Bloomberg.
The Hacking Team, however, showed no signs of standing down. “Frankly, the evidence that the Citizen Lab report presents in this case doesn’t suggest anything inappropriately done by us,” company spokesman Eric Rabe told the Globe and Mail.
As media and activists speculated about which countries the Italian firm served, the founder and CEO of the Hacking Team, David Vincenzetti — from his sleek, white office inside an unsuspecting residential building in Milan — took the bad press in stride. He joked with his colleagues in a private email that he was responsible for the “evilest technology” in the world.
A tall, lean 48-year-old Italian with a taste for expensive steak and designer suits, Vincenzetti has transformed himself over the past decade from an under-ground hacker working out of a windowless basement into a mogul worth millions. He is nothing if not militant about what he defines as justice: Julian Assange, the embattled founder of WikiLeaks, is “a criminal who by all means should be arrested, expatriated to the United States, and judged there”; whistleblower Chelsea Manning is “another lunatic”; Edward Snowden “should go to jail, absolutely.”
“Privacy is very important,” Vincenzetti says on a recent February morning in Milan, pausing to sip his espresso. “But national security is much more important.”
Vincenzetti’s position has come at a high cost. Disturbing incidents have been left in his wake: a spy’s suicide, dissidents’ arrests, and countless human rights abuses. “If I had known how crazy and dangerous he is,” Guido Landi, a former employee, says, “I would never have joined the Hacking Team.” [Continue reading…]