WikiLeaks’ ‘Spy Files’ point finger at Czech firm Phonexia

WikiLeaks says ‘secret new industry’ spanning 25 countries including the Czech Republic aims to intercept data of ‘entire populations’

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Brian Kenety | 02.12.2011
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the SKUP conference for investigative journalism in Norway, in March 2010

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange this week personally unveiled dozens of new documents that purport to show how the private sector is making a fortune in the global surveillance industry — previously the realm of government security and intelligence agencies — by developing technology allowing governments to track citizens’ private mobile devices, listen to their calls and intercept messages.

“Who here has an iPhone? Who has a BlackBerry? Who uses Gmail?” Assange asked people attending a conference in London hosted by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. “Well, you’re all screwed,” he continued. “The reality is that intelligence operations are selling right now mass surveillance systems for all those products.”

According to WikiLeaks, which shared a panel at the London conference with representatives from Privacy International and others campaigning for the protection of personal data, “mass interception of entire populations” is a “secret new industry spanning 25 countries,” and more than 150 private-sector organizations now have the ability to not only track mobile devices but also to intercept messages and listen to calls.

WikiLeaks has released 287 documents in a new section the controversial whistleblower is calling “The Spy Files,” a project it says is ongoing and which will be releasing further information in the coming days, and into 2012: 

“It sounds like something out of Hollywood, but as of today, mass interception systems, built by Western intelligence contractors, including for ‘political opponents’ are a reality. Today WikiLeaks began releasing a database of hundreds of documents from as many as 160 intelligence contractors in the mass surveillance industry.

Working with Bugged Planet and Privacy International, as well as media organizations form six countries — ARD in Germany, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK, The Hindu in India, L’Espresso in Italy, OWNI in France and The Washington Post in the U.S. — WikiLeaks is shining a light on this secret industry that has boomed since September 11, 2001 and is worth billions of dollars per year.”

© YouTube Julian Assange at Thursday’s press conference (refresh your browser if video isn’t visible)

According to WikiLeaks, the Czech company Phonexia is among the private-sector companies selling the invasive technology — including, in some cases, to “dictators”:

‘Other companies like Phonexia in the Czech Republic collaborate with the military to create speech analysis tools. They identify individuals by gender, age and stress levels and track them based on voiceprints.’

“When citizens overthrew the dictatorships in Egypt and Libya this year, they uncovered listening rooms where devices from Gamma corporation of the UK, Amesys of France, VASTech of South Africa and ZTE Corp of China monitored their every move online and on the phone. Surveillance companies like SS8 in the U.S., Hacking Team in Italy and Vupen in France manufacture viruses (Trojans) that hijack individual computers and phones (including iPhones, Blackberries and Androids), take over the device, record its every use, movement, and even the sights and sounds of the room it is in.

Other companies like Phonexia in the Czech Republic collaborate with the military to create speech analysis tools. They identify individuals by gender, age and stress levels and track them based on ‘voiceprints.’ Blue Coat in the U.S. and Ipoque in Germany sell tools to governments in countries like China and Iran to prevent dissidents from organizing online.”

Phonexia and Speech@FIT

Petr Schwarz, a co-owner of Phonexia, told Czech Position that he was surprised the Brno-based firm was singled out by WikiLeaks as it “does not have any direct contracts” with the Czech or other governments. “We do business all over the world, but almost exclusively with technology companies, especially integrators ... Of course, the technology is very interesting for military and intelligence services,” he said. 

Phonexia speech processing technologies are used by the Ministry of Defense of Czech Republic, as the company notes in its website’s “references” section. The fim creates speech analysis tools that can be used to acquire intelligence based on indentified gender, age and even their vocal stress levels. Schwarz said it could be thought of as “something like Google, but for audio files” in that the technology can quickly search through huge amounts of data, but in this case it means sound waves and audio files. 

On its website, the Czech company says that its “Phonexia Speech Transcription” technology converts speech signals to text that “can be easily read, edited, searched, processed by text based data mining tools, or archived. The product is specially optimized for noisy and colloquial speech.”

Phonexia has been working in this area with the Brno University of Technology (VUT) already for several years now. The name of a presentation it gave at the ISS World Prague conference from June 4-5, 2009 says it all: “Speech intelligence for security and defense (getting state-of-the-art speech recognition research from university lab to the real world).”

Asked why he thought Phonexia had been listed by WikiLeaks in The Spy Files, Schwarz said he thinks that most of the firms presenting at that conference which made materials public were included.   

Phonexia was formed in 2006 by Schwarz and five other members of a group at the VUT called Speech@FIT, which had the aim to “develop high-profile research in speech theory, algorithms and software implementation,” according to the ISS World Prague presentation. Speech@FIT was established in 1997 and as of 2009 had 20 members (including faculty members, researchers, students and support staff).

On its website, Speech@FIT notes that it has extensive cooperation with international and local industrial partners and has generated two spin-offs: Phonexia, which delivers speech analytics solutions to customers in commercial and security/defense sectors, and ReplayWell which is being launched in 2011 to commercialize VUT’s “lecture-browsing technology.” 

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