Middle East Dictators Buy Spy Tech From Company Linked to IBM and Google

Iran and Syria are the only countries in the region where Semptian would refuse to sell its surveillance tools, an employee said.

Illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept

It is the size of a small suitcase and can be placed discreetly in the back of a car. When the device is powered up, it begins secretly monitoring hundreds of cellphones in the vicinity, recording people’s private conversations and vacuuming up their text messages.

The device is one of several spy tools manufactured by a Chinese company called Semptian, which has supplied the equipment to authoritarian governments in the Middle East and North Africa, according to two sources with knowledge of the company’s operations.

As The Intercept first reported on Thursday, since 2015, Semptian has been using American technology to help build more powerful surveillance and censorship equipment, which it sells to governments under the guise of a front company called iNext.


How U.S. Tech Giants Are Helping to Build China’s Surveillance State

Semptian is collaborating with IBM and leading U.S. chip manufacturer Xilinx to advance a breed of microprocessors that enable computers to analyze vast amounts of data more quickly. The Chinese firm is a member of an American organization called the OpenPower Foundation, which was founded by Google and IBM executives with the aim of trying to “drive innovation.”

Semptian, Google, and Xilinx did not respond to requests for comment. The OpenPower Foundation said in a statement that it “does not become involved, or seek to be informed, about the individual business strategies, goals or activities of its members,” due to antitrust and competition laws. An IBM spokesperson said that his company “has not worked with Semptian on joint technology development,” and refused to answer further questions.

Semptian’s equipment is helping China’s ruling Communist Party regime covertly monitor the internet and cellphone activity of up to 200 million people across the East Asian country, sifting through vast amounts of private data every day.

But the company’s reach extends far beyond China. In recent years, it has been marketing its technologies globally.

After receiving tips from confidential sources about Semptian’s role in mass surveillance, a reporter contacted the company using an assumed name and posing as a potential customer. In emails, a Semptian representative confirmed that the company had provided its surveillance tools to security agencies in the Middle East and North Africa — and said it had fitted a mass surveillance system in an unnamed country, creating a digital dragnet across its entire population.

The mass surveillance system, named Aegis, is designed to monitor phone and internet use. It can “store and analyze unlimited data” and “show the connections of everyone,” according to documents provided by the company.

“We have installed Aegis in other countries [than China] and covered the whole country.”

“We have installed Aegis in other countries [than China] and covered the whole country,” stated Semptian’s Zhu Wenying in an April email. He declined to provide names of the countries where the equipment has been installed, saying it was “highly sensitive, we are under very strict [nondisclosure agreement].”

Similar equipment has been used for years by Western intelligence agencies and police. However, thanks in part to companies like Semptian, the technology is increasingly finding its way into the hands of security forces in undemocratic countries where dissidents are jailed, tortured, and in some cases executed.

“We’ve seen regular and shocking examples of how surveillance is being used by governments around the world to stay in power by targeting activists, journalists, and opposition members,” said Gus Hosein, executive director of London-based human rights group Privacy International. “Industry is selling the whole stack of surveillance capability at the network, service, city, and state levels. Chinese firms appear to be the latest entrants into this competitive market of influence and data exploitation.”

Asked whether there were any countries it would refuse to deal with in the Middle East and North Africa, Zhu wrote that Iran and Syria were the only two places that were off limits. The company was apparently willing to work with other countries in the region — such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Sudan, and Egypt — where governments routinely abuse human rights, cracking down on freedom of speech and peaceful protest.

Documents show that Semptian is currently offering governments the opportunity to purchase four different systems: Aegis, Owlet, HawkEye, and Falcon.

Aegis, Semptian’s flagship system, is designed to be installed inside phone and internet networks, where it is used to secretly collect people’s email records, phone calls, text messages, cellphone locations, and web browsing histories. Governments in most countries have the power to legally compel phone and internet providers to install such equipment.

Semptian claims that Aegis offers “a full view to the virtual world,” enabling government spies to see “location information for everyone in the country.” It can also “block certain information [on the] internet from being visited,” censoring content that governments do not want their citizens to see.

The Owlet and Falcon devices are smaller scale; they are portable and focus only on cellphone communications. They are the size of a suitcase and can be operated from a vehicle, for example, or from an apartment overlooking a city square.

When the Owlet device is activated, it begins tapping into cellphone calls and text messages that are being transmitted over the airwaves in the immediate area. Semptian’s documents state that the Owlet has the capacity to monitor 200 different phones at any one time.

“Massive interception is used to intercept voice and SMS around the system within the coverage range,” states a document describing Owlet. It adds that there is an “SMS keyword filtering” feature, suggesting that authorities can target people based on particular phrases or words they mention in their messages.

The device taps into cellphone calls and text messages that are being transmitted over the airwaves.

The Falcon system, unlike Owlet, does not have the capability to eavesdrop on calls or texts. Instead, it is designed to track the location of targeted cellphones over an almost 1-mile radius and can pinpoint them to within 5 meters, similar in function to a device known as a Stingray, used by U.S. law enforcement.

When Falcon is powered up, it will “force all nearby mobile phones and other cellular data devices to connect to it,” and can help government authorities “find out the exact house which the targets [are] hiding in,” according to Semptian’s documents.

Falcon comes equipped with a smaller, pocket-size device that can be used by a government agent to pursue people on foot, tracking down the location of their cellphones to within 1 meter.

The fourth system Semptian sells to governments, HawkEye, is a portable, camera-based platform that incorporates facial recognition technology. It is designed to be placed in any location to create a “temporary surveillance scene,” the company’s documents say.

HawkEye scans people as they walk past the camera and compares images of their faces to photographs contained in “multi-million-level databases” in real time, triggering an alert if a particular suspect is identified.

Zhu, the Semptian employee, wrote that some of these tools had been provided to authorities in the Middle East and North Africa region, known as MENA. “Aegis, Falcon and HawkEye are our new solutions for [law enforcement agency] users,” wrote Zhu. “All the three products have successful stories and some in MENA.”

Elsa Kania, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a policy think tank, said that Semptian’s exports appear to fit with a broader trend, which has seen Chinese companies export surveillance and censorship technologies in an effort to tap into new markets while also promoting China ideologically.

“The Chinese Communist Party seeks to bolster and support regimes that are not unlike itself,” Kania said. “It is deeply concerning, because we are seeing rapid diffusion of technologies that, while subject to abuses in democracies, are even more problematic in regimes where there aren’t checks and balances and an open civil society.”

Join The Conversation