Flipping the Script

Meet the privacy activists who spy on the surveillance industry

Illustration by Shutterstock, Elena Scotti/Fusion

LONDON– On the second floor of a narrow brick building in the London Borough of Islington, Edin Omanovic is busy creating a fake company. He is playing with the invented company’s business cards in a graphic design program, darkening the reds, bolding the blacks, and testing fonts to strike the right tone: informational, ambiguous, no bells and whistles. In a separate window, a barren website is starting to take shape. Omanovic, a tall, slender Bosnian-born, Scottish-raised Londonite gives the company a fake address that forwards to his real office, and plops in a red and black company logo he just created. The privacy activist doesn’t plan to scam anyone out of money, though he does want to learn their secrets. Ultimately, he hopes that the business cards combined with a suit and a close-cropped haircut will grant him access to a surveillance industry trade show, a privilege usually restricted to government officials and law enforcement agencies.

Once he’s infiltrated the trade show, he’ll pose as an industry insider, chatting up company representatives, swapping business cards, and picking up shiny brochures that advertise the invasive capabilities of bleeding-edge surveillance technology. Few of the features are ever marketed or revealed openly to the general public, and if the group didn’t go through the pains of going undercover, it wouldn’t know the lengths to which law enforcement and the intelligence community are going to keep tabs on their citizens.

“I don’t know when we’ll get to use this [company], but we need a lot of these to do our research,” Omanovic tells me. (He asked Fusion not to reveal the name of the company in order to not blow its cover.)

The strange tactic– hacking into an expo in order to come into close proximity with government hackers and monitors– is a regular part of operations at Privacy International, a London-based anti-surveillance advocacy group founded 25 years ago. Omanovic is one of a few activists for the group who goes undercover to collect the surveillance promotional documents.

“At last count we had about 1,400 files,” Matt Rice, PI’s Scottish-born advocacy officer says while sifting through a file cabinet full of the brochures. “[The files] help us understand what these companies are capable of, and what’s being sold around the world,” he says. The brochures vary in scope and claims. Some showcase cell site simulators, commonly called Stingrays, which allow police to intercept cell phone activity within a certain area. Others provide details about Finfisher– surveillance software that is marketed exclusively to governments, which allows officials to put spyware on a target’s home computer or mobile device to watch their Skype calls, Facebook and email activity.

The technology buyers at these conferences are the usual suspects — the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service– but also representatives of repressive regimes —Bahrain, Sudan, pre-revolutionary Libya– as the group has revealed in attendees lists it has surfaced.

At times, companies’ claims can raise eyebrows. One brochure shows a soldier, draped in fatigues, holding a portable device up to the faces of a somber group of Arabs. “Innocent civilian or insurgent?,” the pamphlet asks.

“Not certain?”

“Our systems are.”

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The treasure trove of compiled documents was available as an online database, but PI recently took it offline, saying the website had security vulnerabilities that could have compromised information of anyone who wanted to donate to the organization online. They are building a new one. The group hopes that the exposure of what Western companies are selling to foreign governments will help the organization achieve its larger goal: ending the sale of hardware and software to governments that use it to monitor their populations in ways that violate basic privacy rights.

The group acknowledges that it might seem they are taking an extremist position when it comes to privacy, but “we’re not against surveillance,” Michael Rispoli, head of PI’s communications, tells me. “Governments need to keep people safe, whether it’s from criminals or terrorists or what it may be, but surveillance needs to be done in accordance with human rights, and in accordance with the rule of law.”

The group is waging its fight in courtrooms. In February of last year, it filed a criminal complaint to the UK’s National Cyber Crime Unit of the National Crime Agency, asking it to investigate British technology allegedly used repeatedly by the Ethiopian government to intercept the communications of an Ethiopian national. Even after Tadesse Kersmo applied for– and was granted– asylum in the UK on the basis of being a political refugee, the Ethiopian government kept electronically spying on him, the group says, using technology from British firm Gamma International. The group currently has six lawsuits in action, mostly taking on large, yet opaque surveillance companies and the British government. Gamma International did not respond to Fusion’s request for comment on the lawsuit, which alleges that exporting the software to Ethiopian authorities means the company assisted in illegal electronic spying.

“The irony that he was given refugee status here, while a British company is facilitating intrusions into his basic right to privacy isn’t just ironic, it’s wrong,” Rispoli says. “It’s so obvious that there should be laws in place to prevent it.”

PI says it has uncovered other questionable business relationships between oppressive regimes and technology companies based in other Western countries. An investigative report the group put out a few months ago on surveillance in Central Asia said that British and Swiss companies, along with Israeli and Israeli-American companies with close ties to the Israeli military, are providing surveillance infrastructure and technical support to countries like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan– some of the worst-ranking countries in the world when it comes to freedom of speech, according to Freedom House. Only North Korea ranks lower than them.

PI says it used confidential sources, whose accounts have been corroborated, to reach those conclusions.

Not only are these companies complicit in human rights violations, the Central Asia report alleges, but they know they are. Fusion reached out to the companies named in the report, NICE Systems (Israel), Verint Israel (U.S./ Israel), Gamma (UK), or Dreamlab (Switzerland), and none have responded to repeated requests for comment.

The report is a “blueprint” for the future of the organization’s output, says Rice, the advocacy officer. “It’s the first time we’ve done something that really looks at the infrastructure, the laws, and putting it all together to get a view on how the system actually works in a country, or even a whole region,” says Rice.

“What we can do is take that [report], and have specific findings and testimonials to present to companies, to different bodies and parliamentarians, and say this is why we need these things addressed,” adds Omanovic, the researcher and fake company designer.

The tactic is starting to show signs of progress, he says. One afternoon, Omanovic was huddled over a table in the back room, taking part in what looked like an intense conference call. “European Commission,” he says afterwards. The Commission has been looking at surveillance exports since it was revealed that Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain were using European tech to crack down on protesters during the Arab Spring, he added. Now, PI is consulting with some members, and together they “hope to bring in a regulation specifically on this subject by year’s end.”


Privacy International has come a long way from the “sterile bar of an anonymous business hotel in Luxembourg,” where founder Simon Davies, then a lone wolf privacy campaigner, hosted its first meeting with a handful of people 25 years ago. In a blog post commemorating that anniversary, Davies (who left the organization about five years ago) described the general state of privacy advocacy when that first meeting was held:

“Those were strange times. Privacy was an arcane subject that was on very few radar screens. The Internet had barely emerged, digital telephony was just beginning, the NSA was just a conspiracy theory and email was almost non-existent (we called it electronic mail back then). We communicated by fax machines, snail mail – and through actual real face to face meetings that you travelled thousands of miles to attend.”

Immediately, there were disagreements about the scope of issues the organization should focus on, as detailed in the group’s first report, filed in 1991. Some of the group’s 120-odd loosely affiliated members and advisors wanted the organization to focus on small privacy flare-ups; others wanted it to take on huge, international privacy policies, from “transborder data flows” to medical research. Disputes arose as to what “privacy” actually meant at the time. It took years for the group to narrow down the scope of its mandate to something manageable and coherent.

Gus Hosein, current executive director, describes the 90’s as a time when the organization “just knew that it was fighting against something.” He became part of the loose collective in 1996, three days after moving to the UK from New Haven, Connecticut, thanks to a chance encounter with Davies at the London Economics School. For the first thirteen years he worked with PI, he says, the group’s headquarters was the school pub.


Gus Hosein. Photo: Privacy International

They were fighting then some of the same battles that are back in the news cycle today, such as the U.S. government wanting to ban encryption, calling it a tool for criminals to hide their communications from law enforcement. “[We were] fighting against the Clinton Administration and its cryptography policy, fighting against new intersections of law, or proposals in countries X, Y and Z, and almost every day you would find something to fight around,” he says.

Just as privacy issues stemming from the dot com boom were starting to stabilize, 9/11 happened. That’s when Hosein says “the shit hit the fan.”

In the immediate wake of that tragedy, Washington pushed through the Patriot Act and the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, setting an international precedent of invasive pat-downs and extensive monitoring in the name of anti-terrorism. Hosein, being an American, followed the laws closely, and the group started issuing criticism of what it considered unreasonable searches. In the UK, a public debate about issuing national identification cards sprung up. PI fought it vehemently.

“All of a sudden we’re being called upon to respond to core policy-making in Western governments, so whereas policy and surveillance were often left to some tech expert within the Department of Justice or whatever, now it had gone to mainstream policy,” he says. “We were overwhelmed because we were still just a ragtag bunch of people trying to fight fights without funding, and we were taking on the might of the executive arm of government.”

The era was marked by a collective struggle to catch up. “I don’t think anyone had any real successes in that era,” Hosein says.

But around 2008, the group’s advocacy work in India, Thailand and the Philippines started to gain the attention of donors, and the team decided it was time to organize. The three staff members then started the formal process of becoming a charity, after being registered as a corporation for ten years. By the time it got its first office in 2011 (around the time its founder, Davies, walked away to pursue other ventures) the Arab Spring was dominating international headlines.

“With the Arab Spring and the rise of attention to human rights and technology, that’s when PI actually started to realize our vision, and become an organization that could grow,” Hosein says. “Four years ago we had three employees, and now we have 16 people,” he says with a hint of pride.


“This is a real vindication for [Edward] Snowden,” Eric King, PI’s deputy director says about one of the organization’s recent legal victories over the UK’s foremost digital spy agency, known as the Government Communications Headquarters or GCHQ.

PI used the documents made public by Snowden to get the British court that oversees GCHQ to determine that all intelligence sharing between GCHQ and the National Security Administration (NSA) was illegal up until December 2014. Ironically, the court went on to say that the sharing was only illegal because of lack of public disclosure of the program. Now that details of the program were made public thanks to the lawsuit, the court said, the operation is now legal and GCHQ can keep doing what it was doing.

“It’s like they’re creating the law on the fly,” King says. “[The UK government] is knowingly breaking the law and then retroactively justifying themselves. Even though we got the court to admit this whole program was illegal, the things they’re saying now are wholly inadequate to protect our privacy in this country.”

Nevertheless, it was a “highly significant ruling,” says Elizabeth Knight, Legal Director of fellow UK-based civil liberties organization Open Rights Group. “It was the first time the [courts have] found the UK’s intelligence services to be in breach of human rights law,” she says. “The ruling is a welcome first step towards demonstrating that the UK government’s surveillance practices breach human rights law.”

In an email, a GCHQ spokesperson downplayed the significance of the ruling, saying that PI only won the case in one respect: on a “transparency issue,” rather than on the substance of the data sharing program. “The rulings re-affirm that the processes and safeguards within these regimes were fully adequate at all times, so we have not therefore needed to make any changes to policy or practice as a result of the judgement,” the spokesperson says.

Eric King. Photo: Privacy International

Eric King. Photo: Privacy International

Before coming on board four years ago, King, a 25-year old Wales native, worked at Reprieve, a non-profit that provides legal support to prisoners. Some of its clients are at Guantanamo Bay and other off-the-grid prisons, something that made him mindful of security concerns when the group was communicating with clients. King worried that every time he made a call to his clients, they were being monitored. “No one could answer those questions, and that’s what got me going on this,” says King.

Right now, he tells me, most of the group’s legal actions have to do with fighting the “Five Eyes”– the nickname given to the intertwined intelligence networks of the UK, Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand. One of the campaigns, stemming from the lawsuit against GCHQ that established a need for transparency, is asking GCHQ to confirm if the agency illegally collected information about the people who signed a “Did the GCHQ Illegally Spy On You?” petition. So far, 10,000 people have signed up to be told whether their communications or online activity were collected by the UK spy agency when it conducted mass surveillance of the Internet. If a court actually forces GCHQ to confirm whether those individuals were spied on, PI will then ask that all retrieved data be deleted from the database.

“It’s such an important campaign not only because people have the right to know, but it’s going to bring it home to people and politicians that regular, everyday people are caught up in this international scandal,” King says. “You don’t even have to be British to be caught up in it. People all over the world are being tracked in that program.”

Eerke Boiten, a senior lecturer at the interdisciplinary Cyber Security Centre at the University of Kent, says that considering recent legal victories, he can’t write off the effort, even if he would have dismissed it just a year ago.

“We have now finally seen some breakthroughs in transparency in response to Snowden, and the sense that intelligence oversight needs an overhaul is increasing,” he wrote in an email to me. “So although the [British government] will do its best to shore up the GCHQ legal position to ensure it doesn’t need to respond to this, their job will be harder than before.”

“Privacy International have a recent record of pushing the right legal buttons,” he says. “They may win again.”

A GCHQ spokesperson says that the agency will “of course comply with any direction or order” a court might give it, stemming from the campaign.

King is also the head of PI’s research arm– organizing in-depth investigations into national surveillance ecosystems, in tandem with partner groups in countries around the world. The partners hail from places as disparate as Kenya and Mexico. One recently released report features testimonials from people who reported being heavily surveilled in Morocco. Another coming out of Colombia will be more of an “exposé,” with previously unreported details on surveillance in that country, he says.

And then there’s the stuff that King pioneered: the method of sneaking into industry conferences by using a shadow company. He developed the technique Omanovic is using. King can’t go to the conferences undercover anymore because his face is now too well known. When asked why he started sneaking into the shows, he says: “Law enforcement doesn’t like talking about [surveillance]. Governments don’t talk about it. And for the most part our engagement with companies is limited to when we sue them,” he laughs.

When it comes to the surveillance field, you would be hard pressed to find a company that does exactly what it says it does, King tells me. So when he or someone else at PI sets up a fake company, they expect to get about as much scrutiny as the next ambiguous, potentially official organization that lines up behind them.

Collectively, PI has been blacklisted and been led out of a few conferences over the past four years they have been doing this, he estimates.

“If we have to navigate some spooky places to get what we need, then that’s what we’ll do,” he says. Sometimes you have to walk through a dark room to turn on a light. Privacy International sees a world with a lot of dark rooms.

“Being shadowy is acceptable in this world.”