Meet the American Company Helping Governments Spy on “Billions” of Communications

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Jan. 30 2013 2:59 PM

Meet the American Company Helping Governments Spy on “Billions” of Communications

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Companies like Verint create technologies that can be used to monitor activity online

Photo by HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images

Every day, billions of emails and phone calls flow through communications networks in countries across the world. Now, one American company has built technology capable of spying on them all—and business is booming.

Ryan Gallagher Ryan Gallagher

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

Verint, a leading manufacturer of surveillance technologies, is headquartered in Melville, N.Y., in a small cluster of nondescript buildings that also includes the office of a multinational cosmetics supplier and some electronics companies.

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Among Verint’s products are unremarkable security cameras and systems that enable call center managers to monitor their workers.  But it also sells some of the world’s most sophisticated eavesdropping equipment, creating a line of spy tools designed to help governments and intelligence agencies snoop on communications across an entire country.

Verint sells what it calls “monitoring centers” that “enable the interception, monitoring, and analysis of target and mass communications over virtually any network.” These systems are designed to be integrated within a country’s communications infrastructure and, according to Verint’s website, are currently used in more than 75 nations.

The technology Verint designs doesn’t just target specific criminal groups or terrorists. It can be tailored to intercept the phone calls and emails of millions of everyday citizens and store them on vast databases for later analysis. Verint boasts in its marketing materials that its “Vantage” monitoring center enables “nationwide mass interception” and “efficiently collects, analyzes, and exposes threats from billions of communications.” And if that’s not enough to satisfy spy agencies’ thirst for intelligence, Verint has more to offer. The company says it can also help governments automatically identify people from the sound of their voice using speech identification software, intercept the cellular and satellite mobile phone communications of “mass populations over a wide area” using a covert portable device, and provide data-mining tools to build detailed profiles about criminals and other “negative influencers” in real time.

The National Security Agency has reportedly purchased Verint snooping equipment, as have authorities in Mexico. However, the use of such technology in the United States is a legally contentious issue. Mass monitoring of solely domestic calls and emails would be prohibited under the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unwarranted searches and seizures. But a controversial clause in a 2008 amendment to the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act means mining communications as they pass between the United States and countries of interest like Pakistan and Yemen can be deemed technically permissible. (Other countries, however, have few regulations in this area, if any at all. Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was able to get his hands on French mass surveillance gear in 2006, which was subsequently used domestically to indiscriminately track dissidents and other regime opponents.)

With revenues of more than an estimated $840 million in 2012 according to public accounts, Verint has at least 16 offices in countries including Japan, China, Russia, Israel, Australia, Canada, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the Philippines. The company’s accounts reveal that its communications intelligence solutions have generated a significant proportion of revenue and have been selling better than ever in recent years. Between 2006 and 2011, for instance, Verint’s annual communications intelligence sales rocketed by almost 70 percent from $108 million to $182 million. And 2012 looks to be another good year, with a projected increase of about 13 percent looking likely based on the figures published for the first three quarters. Most of the company’s communications surveillance sales in 2012 were made in the Americas (53 percent). EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa) comprise approximately a 27 percent of its sales, and APAC (Asia-Pacific region) a further 20 percent.

I contacted Verint to seek more information about its advanced eavesdropping tools. In particular, I wanted to know whether it follows the U.S. government’s "Know Your Customer" guidelines, which are designed to help businesses avoid selling goods to countries or customers where they might have an “inappropriate end-use.” But Verint declined to answer a series of detailed questions for this story and turned down an interview request. A public relations representative acting on behalf of the company told me that “due to the sensitive nature of these solutions, they [Verint] tend not to seek deeper coverage of this area of the business.”

Governments across the world are using Verint’s technology to sift through masses of intercepted communications—that much is certain. The rest, at least for now, remains a tight-lipped secret.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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