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  • A few years ago,

  • an American defense consultant I know

  • told me about a trip he took to Uzbekistan.

  • His role there was to help sell technology

  • that the Uzbek government could use to spy on its own citizens.

  • He eventually shared with me the marketing material

  • he'd presented to the Uzbek government.

  • One glossy brochure featured technology that could not just intercept phone calls,

  • but identify the caller,

  • regardless of what phone number they were using,

  • based on their unique voiceprint,

  • and then identify their exact geographic location.

  • This is a guy who had been involved with the arms trade for years.

  • He wasn't some Hollywood-type gunrunner doing backroom deals.

  • He was just a guy that worked with legitimate Western companies

  • to help sell their weapons abroad.

  • But he wasn't bothered by marketing this sort of technology.

  • For him, it was just the next step in the arms trade.

  • And it was even easier than, say, selling weapons to Iraq,

  • because it didn't require an export license

  • from the US State Department,

  • the way most arms sales would.

  • It turns out that these tools of surveillance

  • are almost completely unregulated,

  • because as of today, they're not defined as weapons.

  • But they should be, and we need to regulate them that way.

  • I'm a journalist who has spent the last two decades

  • looking at how the military and intelligence world

  • spurs the development of new science and technology.

  • I've tracked the emergence of new weapons

  • and looked to see what happens

  • when companies start to market these weapons abroad.

  • But what is a weapon in the information age?

  • We know that armed drones are weapons,

  • missiles and bombs are weapons,

  • but the State Department actually classifies

  • broad categories of technologies as weapons.

  • So for example, a scientist going abroad on an oceanographic research vessel,

  • they want to take the latest night-vision goggles?

  • That, according to the State Department, is potentially a weapon.

  • Why?

  • Well, because though night-vision goggles are used today by scientists

  • and hunters around the world,

  • it was a capability first developed for the military.

  • And yet, tools of surveillance

  • that an authoritarian regime could use to spy on its own citizens,

  • on dissidents, on journalists,

  • that, according to the US government today, is not a weapon.

  • And yet, these tools of surveillance

  • are part of a growing secretive multi-billion-dollar industry.

  • The genesis of this spy bazaar goes back some 18 years,

  • to a Hilton hotel in northern Virginia,

  • just a few miles away from the US Central Intelligence Agency.

  • A few dozen people, mostly dark-suited men,

  • gathered there in the spring of 2002

  • for a conference with the unassuming name of ISS World.

  • You know, at first glance, this conference probably looked like dozens of events

  • that used to take place around the Washington, DC area.

  • But this event was unique.

  • ISS stands for Intelligence Support Systems,

  • and the people who were there

  • were from companies that built technologies to spy

  • on private communications.

  • In other words, these were sort of wire-tappers for hire.

  • And the reason they were there was that less than a year earlier,

  • the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington

  • had spurred the Congress to press through legislation

  • known as the Patriot Act.

  • This gave the government broad new authorities

  • to monitor communications.

  • Emails, internet activity, phone calls,

  • even financial transactions.

  • This created an instant demand for data.

  • And in the true American entrepreneurial spirit,

  • an industry rose up to help collect this data.

  • But back in 2002,

  • this was still a pretty modest affair.

  • Only about 10 percent of the world's population

  • was even online using the internet.

  • So most of what was being collected were simple emails and phone calls

  • over landlines and cell phones.

  • But over the next few years,

  • the way that we communicate began to change rapidly.

  • There was the introduction of Skype, Facebook

  • and then, crucially, the iPhone,

  • and within a few years,

  • billions of us were walking around with little computers in our pockets

  • that do everything from monitor our exercise habits

  • to help us find romantic partners.

  • And suddenly, you didn't necessarily need the advanced capability

  • of the National Security Agency or big telecoms

  • to monitor everyone's communication.

  • In some cases,

  • all you needed was access to that device in their pockets.

  • And that gave birth to an entirely new type of industry.

  • You know, not many companies can build missiles or aircraft,

  • but it doesn't take a lot of capital to create software

  • that can hack into someone's smartphone.

  • Computer hackers have been around for years,

  • but now their skills could be used to build technologies

  • that were in high demand by law enforcement

  • and intelligence agencies.

  • And soon, dozens and even hundreds of companies

  • were getting into this wire-tappers' market.

  • And that little conference in Virginia,

  • it grew and soon became known as the Wiretappers' Ball.

  • Well, not much was known about the Wiretappers' Ball

  • in those early years,

  • because the conferences were closed to everyone

  • except the companies and their government customers.

  • But journalists did begin to see and hear reports

  • of companies getting into this private spy market.

  • Spooky entrepreneurs going around the world,

  • doing deals,

  • often with authoritarian regimes.

  • And it was, from the start, a really loosely regulated market.

  • Some countries do require permission to sell these technologies abroad,

  • but rarely with the type of scrutiny that is given to traditional arms.

  • So for example, the Italian-based company Hacking Team

  • reportedly sold its technology to authoritarian regimes

  • in Egypt and Kazakhstan.

  • The Israeli-based company NSO Group has reportedly sold its technology

  • to the regime in Saudi Arabia,

  • which has been accused of harassing,

  • and even, in one case, killing one of its political opponents.

  • And we do think of weapons as things that kill people.

  • But in the information age,

  • some of the most powerful weapons are things that can track and identify us.

  • This is something that the Pentagon and CIA have recognized for years,

  • and they've tried to build technologies

  • that can track people, suspected terrorists, around the globe.

  • The Pentagon has invested in something called smart dust,

  • little microsensors the size of specs of dust

  • that you could scatter on people without them knowing it,

  • and then use it to track their location.

  • The Pentagon, through its venture capital firm,

  • has invested in a beauty products company once featured in "Oprah Magazine"

  • to build a device that could surreptitiously collect DNA

  • just by swiping across the skin.

  • But something remarkable has happened over the past decade.

  • In many cases, what the private marketplace has been able to do

  • has far outstripped what the Pentagon or CIA even thought was possible.

  • Back in 2008,

  • the Pentagon had a secretive database of DNA from terrorists.

  • It had about 80,000 samples.

  • Well, the private company AncestryDNA

  • today has samples from over 15 million people.

  • 23andMe, the second-largest genealogical database,

  • has samples from over 10 million people.

  • So now, maybe you don't need these James Bond-worthy techniques

  • of collecting DNA

  • if we're willingly handing it over to private companies

  • and even paying for the honor of doing it.

  • Well, what could you do with a sample of someone's DNA?

  • In the United States and China,

  • researchers are working on using DNA samples

  • to build images of people's faces.

  • So if you pair DNA with facial recognition technology,

  • you have the basis of a really powerful surveillance system

  • that could be used to track individuals or entire ethnic groups.

  • And if you think that sounds a little bit paranoid,

  • keep in mind that the Pentagon last year sent out a memo

  • to all of its service members,

  • warning them precisely not to use those commercial DNA kits

  • over concerns that information could be used to track them

  • or their family members.

  • And yet, even with the Pentagon raising concerns about this technology,

  • almost nothing has been done to reign in this market.

  • One American company, Clearview AI,

  • has been collecting billions of images of people's faces

  • from across the internet,

  • like those pictures you post on Instagram of you and your friends and family,

  • and then selling its facial recognition services

  • to US government and law-enforcement agencies.

  • And even if you think

  • that's a perfectly acceptable application of this technology,

  • there's nothing to stop them from selling to private individuals,

  • corporations or even foreign governments.

  • And that's exactly what some companies are doing.

  • That Wiretappers' Ball that started in northern Virginia?

  • Today, it's held in multiple cities around the globe.

  • Thousands of people now attend the ISS trainings and conferences.

  • And more of the companies showing up are coming from the Middle East and China.

  • The spy bazaar has gone global.

  • And at arms shows now around the world,

  • you'll see companies displaying facial recognition technology

  • and phone hacking software,

  • displaying right next to traditional arms manufacturers

  • with tanks and missiles.

  • And walking around these arms shows,

  • it's pretty easy to go down dystopian rabbit holes,

  • thinking about future surveillance technology

  • that will track our every move.

  • And I remember one Pentagon adviser telling me

  • that what the military really needed were space-based satellites

  • that could track people anywhere on earth based just on their DNA.

  • It's enough to make you invest in tinfoil hats.

  • But the truth is,

  • we don't know what sort of technology the future will bring.

  • But we know that today, in the absence of regulation,

  • this marketplace is already exploding.

  • And in fact, one of those companies accused of selling surveillance technology

  • to authoritarian regimes,

  • today, it's offering to help track those infected with COVID-19.

  • And of course, technology does offer the tantalizing promise

  • of helping control a pandemic through contact tracing.

  • But it also opens up another door, to privatized mass surveillance.

  • So what do we do about this private spy bazaar?

  • We can hide, go offline,

  • get off social media, ditch our smartphones,

  • go live in a cave,

  • but the truth is, we're not trained to be professional spies,

  • we can't live under false identities or with no identities.

  • And even real spies are having a hard time staying below the radar, these days.

  • It doesn't matter how many passports Jason Bourne has

  • if his face or DNA is in someone's database.

  • But if even governments have lost control of the tools of spying,

  • is there anything we can do about it?

  • One argument I've heard

  • is that even if the US were to restrict companies

  • from selling this sort of technology abroad,

  • companies based in China might simply step in.

  • But we regulate the arms trade today,

  • even if we do it imperfectly.

  • And in fact, there was a multilateral proposal several years ago

  • to do just that,

  • to require export licenses for surveillance software.

  • The United States was among those countries

  • that agreed to these voluntary regulations,

  • but back in Washington, this proposal has simply languished.

  • We have an administration that would rather sell more weapons abroad

  • with fewer restrictions,

  • including to some of those countries

  • accused of abusing surveillance technology.

  • I think to move forward, we would need to revive that proposal,

  • but even go one step further.

  • We need to fundamentally change how we think of surveillance technology

  • and define these tools as weapons.

  • This would allow government

  • to regulate and control their sale and export

  • the way that they control traditional arms,

  • advanced aircraft and missiles.

  • But that means recognizing that technology that tracks who we are,

  • what we do, what we say,

  • and even in some cases, what we think,

  • is a form of advanced weaponry.

  • And these weapons are growing too powerful,

  • available to the highest bidder,