Photograph by Rafe Swan—Getty Images/Cultura RF

Cybercriminals who hacked into security firm Hacking Team released a trove of emails showing the inner workings of government spy agencies.

By Jonathan Vanian
July 16, 2015

Hackers who breached cybersecurity firm Hacking Team earlier this month exposed a trove of sensitive emails detailing the inner workings of the company’s clients: Government spy agencies.

The over one million emails, searchable on the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, give a rare look into how countries are using technology to spy on their citizens. The messages show how big an appetite a number of both repressive and democratic governments have for surveillance and how Hacking Team, based in Italy, was more than happy to supply the necessary software.

The firm’s clients include the Sudan’s intelligence service, a Russian arms conglomerate, as well as countries including Uzbekistan, Egypt, and Azerbaijan, according to the Associated Press. The AP report quoted a South Korean National Intelligence Service chief who said that 97 intelligence agencies across 35 countries were using the company’s spy software.

 

Some of the countries used Hacking Team’s flagship software to obtain chat records from people’s smartphones, as in the case of Kazakhstan’s spy agency. Others, like law enforcement agencies in the Czech Republic, used the software to convert mobile phones like BlackBerries into tiny eavesdropping machines.

The United States has also been linked to Hacking Team, with the FBI reportedly spending roughly $775,000 on Hacking Team software since 2011. One of the leaked emails shows an FBI agent asking Hacking Team if a new version of the company’s Galileo tool could help the FBI locate the whereabouts of individuals using a type of software known as Tor designed for anonymizing communications.

ZDNet reported that it’s unclear whether the FBI was able to pinpoint the person using Hacking Team software. But an email sent by a Hacking Team staff member to colleagues stated that the FBI used the Galileo security software for “low level types of investigations,” and the company should develop new features such as the ability to infiltrate private communications made via software like Tor or virtual private networks.

Hacking Team apparently worked hard to obtain new clients that weren’t the spy agencies of world governments as well.

 

The leaked emails indicate that the security company was communicating with local law enforcement throughout the United States who seemed pleased with the security software’s potential, according to the Associated Press report.

The security firm even tried to sell the Vatican on its services with the creation of a booby trapped Bible app that could load up spy software on the devices of people the Vatican may want to keep tabs of. It’s unclear if the Vatican actually bought Hacking Team’s services or who the Vatican would want to spy on.

Hacking Team’s founder David Vincenzetti has defended his company amid claims that it’s arming repressive governments with tools that violate human rights.

In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa this week, Vincenzetti admitted that his company sold software to Libya, but did so at a time when “it seemed that the Libyans had become [Italy’s] best friends.”

“The geopolitical chessboard is constantly changing, and situations often evolve,” Vincenzetti told the newspaper. “But we are not arms dealers, we don’t sell rifles that can be used for years.”

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