Hacking Team, the company now equally known for selling intrusive spyware to governments and getting royally hacked, has words for people who disagree with its habit of peddling powerful cyberweapons to regimes with terrible human rights records: What’s a “repressive” regime, anyway?

I asked Hacking Team if someone would speak directly to its reputation for selling its remote access spyware—which lets law enforcement and governments turn on webcams, record phone calls, steal files, and track messages—to repressive regimes. US spokesperson Eric Rabe informed me that it’s all relative:

This issue may appear to be simple. In reality it is a complicated one for several reasons. For one thing, some have labeled certain long-time allies of the West “repressive.” Furthermore, it happens that governments change, and, therefore they become more or less criticized over time.

Hacking Team’s excuse for its eccentric roster of clients basically boils down to “you say terrorist, I say freedom fighter, nothing matters lol.” Just because some fuddy-duddy activist group like the UN puts LABELS on a government doesn’t mean it’s necessarily “repressive,” you hippie. Which explains why Hacking Team decided to sell spyware to Sudan’s intelligence service in 2012, even though UN sanctions prohibited the sale of weapons, including digital weapons, at that time.

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(The leaked emails show that Hacking Team halted sales to Sudan in 2014, after pressure from a UN panel monitoring the implementation of weapons sanctions in Sudan.)

But wait, there is more excuse:

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Finally, even some governments that are deeply criticized by some activists may have a very legitimate need for our technology. For example, such a state, though the focus of activist anger, may also be a breeding ground for terrorists. The technology provided by HackingTeam is particularly useful in detecting and prosecuting terrorists.

Ah, gotcha, cool cool. So when Hacking Team decided to renew its license with Ethiopia’s Information Network Security Agency even after the INSA was discovered to be using the software to spy on journalists, it was because INSA also wanted it to fight terrorists...except INSA categorized the journalists as terrorists...

This muddled official excuse is similar to the line of thinking Hacking Team CEO and co-founder David Vincenzetti put forth in one of his leaked emails to a colleague, where he complains about the negative press Hacking Team receives for its clientele:

“I have a question for you all: PLEASE NAME a single really ‘democratic’ country, a country which does not violate anybody’s rights and has a TOTALLY clean human rights record,” he wrote.

If you’re looking for more gems like that, a non-profit called Transparency Toolkit has made the entire trove of leaked data available online for download. We’ll be combing through over the next few days, but if you find anything worth checking out, let me know in the comments, or email me.


Contact the author at kate.knibbs@gizmodo.com.
Public PGP key
PGP fingerprint: FF8F 0D7A AB19 6D71 C967 9576 8C12 9478 EE07 10C