FEW NEWS EVENTS can unleash more schadenfreude within the security community than watching a notorious firm of hackers-for-hire become a hack target themselves. In the case of the freshly disemboweled Italian surveillance firm Hacking Team, the company may also serve as a dark example of a global surveillance industry that often sells to any government willing to pay, with little regard for that regime's human rights record.
On Sunday night, unidentified hackers published a massive, 400 gigabyte trove on BitTorrent (peer-to-peer file sharing) of internal documents from the Milan-based Hacking Team, a firm long accused of unethical sales of tools that help governments break into target computers and phones. The breached trove includes executive emails, customer invoices and even source code; the company's twitter feed was hacked, controlled by the intruders for nearly 12 hours, and used to distribute samples of the company's hacked files. The security community spent Sunday night picking through the spy firm's innards and in some cases finding what appear to be new confirmations that Hacking Team sold digital intrusion tools to authoritarian regimes. Those revelations may be well timed to influence an ongoing U.S. policy debate over how to control spying software, with a deadline for public debate on new regulations coming this month.
One document pulled from the breached files, for instance, appears to be a list of Hacking Team customers along with the length of their contracts. These customers include Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Nigeria, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and several United States agencies including the DEA, FBI and Department of Defense. Other documents show that Hacking Team issued an invoice to Ethiopia's Information Network Security Agency (the spy agency of a country known to surveil and censor its journalists and political dissidents) for licensing its Remote Control System, a spyware tool. For Sudan, a country that's the subject of a UN embargo, the documents show a $480,000 invoice to its National Intelligence and Security Services for the same software.
"These are the equivalents of the Edward Snowden leaks for the surveillance industry," says Eric King, the deputy director of Privacy International. "There are few countries [Hacking Team] aren't willing to sell to. There are few lines they aren't willing to cross."