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European Cops Welcome Spy Vendor That Sold to Assad Regime

A company fined for exporting surveillance tools to Syria was invited to speak at a European police conference.

by Joseph Cox
Feb 8 2018, 1:00pm

Image: Shutterstock

Selling to highly oppressive regimes, such as Syria, or skirting export laws are some of the worst things a company in the surveillance industry can do. That’s exactly what an Italian firm called AREA did in the past.

Nonetheless, this week a top European law enforcement conference gave the company not only the chance to exhibit its goods to potential government clients, but also a spot on a panel to discuss how customers might use its products.

AREA’s presence at the European Police Congress highlights how surveillance companies can seemingly act against American, EU, and local laws with relative impunity while still securing relationships with European organizations.

“It's further evidence of a complete lack of accountability in the surveillance industry and shows a shocking lack of concern from the organisers. The fact that some of these conferences are even promoted by government departments is completely unacceptable,” Edin Omanovic from activist group Privacy International, who has a focus on export controls, told Motherboard.

Launched in 1996, AREA offers a spread of different surveillance technologies, including IMSI-catchers designed to intercept communications or geo-locate phones; and solutions for spying on internet traffic.

“AREA develops and markets monitoring systems for lawful monitoring activities,” the company’s website reads. “Our integrated solutions enables Law Enforcement Agencies, Governments and Military Intelligence to: capture, record, play, track, analyse, decode.”

"Again and again we’ve seen glaring examples of surveillance companies involved in peddling surveillance to some of the world’s worst human rights abusers being invited to show off their products to government agencies behind closed doors"

In late 2016, Italian authorities raided the offices of AREA, due to accusations it provided Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad’s regime with surveillance technology despite a European embargo. And in 2014, AREA agreed to pay a $100,000 fine to the United States government after supplying technology to Syria via the US. Last year, an undercover investigation by Al Jazeera caught AREA employees offering to smuggle surveillance technology to South Sudan.

None of that stopped the European Police Congress, a two-day event in Berlin for police and security forces as well as industry, from providing AREA sales engineer Emanuele Marcozzi a spot on a panel. The panel, dubbed “Actionable Intelligence,” also had slots for senior German law enforcement officials and other industry representatives.

Marcozzi focused on how law enforcement may be able to obtain information that is not normally publicly available to investigators, hence the need for his company’s products.

“We’re talking about encryption that is available everywhere,” he said during the panel. “We could talk about [the] dark net, cryptocurrency, identities, cloud,” although he didn’t specify how any of AREA’s products would directly counter these issues.

AREA also had a booth at the conference, where those interested in sourcing surveillance technology could follow up with the company.

Behörden Spiegel, a monthly national newspaper for the German public service and which organizes the conference, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. AREA did not respond either.

Omanovic pointed to several other examples of offending companies still being given spots at conferences, including those that are government-run, rather than purely setup by industry. IPS, which Al Jazeera’s undercover investigation caught offering to sell tech to Iran, will be exhibiting at this year’s UK Home Office sponsored Security and Policing show.

“Again and again we’ve seen glaring examples of surveillance companies involved in peddling surveillance to some of the world’s worst human rights abusers being invited to show off their products to government agencies behind closed doors,” Omanovic added.