Business (2009)

Surveillance Technology

The BigBrotherAward 2009 in the “Business” category is given to a handful of German companies that sell Internet and phone surveillance technology and earn good money that way, while preferring to stay unnoticed themselves.
Frank Rosengart am Redner.innenpult der BigBrotherAwards 2021.
Frank Rosengart, Chaos Computer Club (CCC)

In the last few years, the German Government’s newly introduced or tightened security laws have tremendously expanded options as well as obligations for surveillance to be carried out by telecommunications operators and Internet service providers. One only has to think of data retention of telephone connections or online searches of private computers. Consequentially, a lucrative market for technical solutions has emerged that seeks to assist the authorities in their surveillance efforts.

This year’s BigBrotherAward in the Business category is not given to one single winner. It goes collectively to the most avid solution providers in the area of surveillance, and we would like to introduce some of them here.

The company Quante Netzwerke GmbH, for example, offers Internet providers support with the technical implementation and legal assessment of public surveillance regulations. Their product “Lawful Interception Center” is the private sector’s equivalent of the “Federal Wiretapping Centre”, or as some people call it, “Schäubles’ Service Centre for Communications Surveillance” (Wolfgang Schäuble was Germany’s Interior Minister in 2005–2009). The “Lawful Interception Center” works as follows: The authorities send their surveillance orders to Quante, who then carry out the wiretapping using a direct link to the provider’s network. This requires the “outsourcing” provider to establish privileged access to their systems for Quante, so that they can divert the monitored connection to the eavesdropping authority. As alarming as this “outsourcing” appears to be, it is understandable from the providers' point of view. They would otherwise have to upgrade their technical equipment and employ more qualified personnel with every new surveillance law that is being put in place.

The “Data Retention Suite” is a product of Utimaco Software, a company situated in Oberursel that specialises in implementing data retention. The vast amounts of data thus accumulated every day are stored in so-called “Data Warehouses”, and requests for these data are served within seconds. As in the case of Quante, this product is designed as a “pool solution” that allows the system to be used by different clients simultaneously. However, collecting the data in this centralised way is problematic. Requests by the authorities could be served automatically through standardised interfaces, which might make it impossible for the client to have a legally trained person conduct a formal assessment as to the admissibility of the request – which clients are interested in as they could be penalised for sharing communications data without legal justification. The automatised query is stipulated by law and defined by a “Technical Directive for Telecommunications Surveillance (Technische Richtlinie Telekommunikationsüberwachung)“.

Internet eavesdropping is the speciality of Datakom in Ismaning. They are, in their own words, a “market leader in crime-combating technologies for network operators and investigation authorities”. Its subsidiary company for snooping technologies is aptly called “GTEN” – an allusion to Article 10 of the German Constitution (Grundgesetz), which is about restrictions of the privacy of correspondence, posts and telecommunications.

The company Sybor has been in business for 18 years and has now been taken over by Verint/Comverse, an American-Israeli company. Syborg primarily supplies audio recording systems to be used by the authorities for “acquiring and rerouting data”.

The Hessian company Digi-Task could be described as the “top dog” of the German eavesdropping business. Just last year they made headlines when the Bavarian State Criminal Office were looking to commission a spyware, in short, a “Trojan”. The software was going to be available for 3.500 Euros per month. According to the offer, the spyware would enable eavesdropping on encrypted Skype telephone calls. Using figures from published tender documents, it can be found that Digi-Task received more than five million Euros from German authorities for such surveillance equipment and systems. In cooperation with the company Reuter electronic, Digi-Task develops specialised bugging devices for police forces and secret services.

There is a product that no German telecommunications provider can do without: Every surveillance device has to be equipped with a “SINA Box”, which is supplied by the company secunet. The “SINA Box” encrypts the transmission of the tapped communication on its way to the authorities. There are no competitors: only this one product currently has the appropriate certification.

The “Service Control Engine” by Cisco is not a German product, but it is used by Internet providers in IP networks around the globe. It enables “Deep Packet Inspection”, i.e. detailed analysis of data packages including full-text searches for terms or for specific data at a speed of up to 10 gigabytes per second – thus removing any doubt that all-encompassing monitoring of the Internet is easily possible, even as data volumes are growing.

Nokia Siemens Networks, in short NSN, used to be active and successful internationally with surveillance technology. Last year they delivered equipment for recording mobile phone conversations to Iran, for which the company was publicly criticised. In March 2009, NSN sold its surveillance section to a holding company in Munich (Germany), which now runs the business under the name Trovicor. The truly dodgy deals with surveillance technology are probably conducted via this company by now.

We are going to end our list at this point and allow for a concluding remark: Surely there are lot of instances where communications surveillance can be used to solve crime. But the large increase in surveillance measures indicates a dangerous trend. Ultimately, the reason why it is so easy for ministers and authorities to turn surveillance fantasies into reality is that for every new surveillance idea, however absurd it may be, there is a supplier ready with a technical solution. Conscience only comes after profit.

Some of these companies earn good money exporting spying technology to countries with poor democratic records. Through places such as Dubai, the technology can be delivered anywhere in the world. German export control authorities are unable or unwilling to take a closer look.

Our opinion is this: Dear laureates, even if you have not been named here, it is with the “help” of your products that our basic rights are being undermined and gradually unhinged. Technologies that allow for the surveillance of whole societies create a climate of distrust and fear. We would like to remind you of this by giving you this BigBrotherAward in the Business category.


Frank Rosengart am Redner.innenpult der BigBrotherAwards 2021.
Frank Rosengart, Chaos Computer Club (CCC)

About BigBrotherAwards

In a compelling, entertaining and accessible format, we present these negative awards to companies, organisations, and politicians. The BigBrotherAwards highlight privacy and data protection offenders in business and politics, or as the French paper Le Monde once put it, they are the “Oscars for data leeches”.

Organised by (among others):

BigBrother Awards International (Logo)

BigBrotherAwards International

The BigBrotherAwards are an international project: Questionable practices have been decorated with these awards in 19 countries so far.