Surveillance baron busted by FBI for election-finance fraud

Last week, the FBI arrested Jose Susumo Azano Matsura at his home in Coronado, CA. Azano was a rich, successful surveillance technology vendor who came to prominence by touting ubiquitous, intense surveillance as an answer to social problems and got rich through a no-bid contract to supply surveillance tools to the Mexican military, and expanded to supply Internet surveillance tools through his company Security Tracking Devices, with offices in Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates.

Azano's company supplied bulk-surveillance tools for spying on entire populations, as well as targeted malware intended for secret implantation on victims' laptops and phones to turn them into spy tools. They also sold access to a database, maintained by IBM, of 1.3 million names of people whom governments should be spying on.

Azano was arrested for corruption -- illegal election financing in San Diego. His scandal is just the latest in a string involving con artists, crooks and grafters who go into the spying business. For example, the founder of one major censorware company, doing business with numerous American school districts (as well as autocratic Middle Eastern leaders) was placed on the California sex-offender registry for "sexually interfering with a 14 year old girl."

One of the arguments for surveillance is that only the good guys will be able to peer into the data gathered by the bugs. But the evidence is that the kind of person who decides to get rich by spying on other people is generally not a very good guy, and these people are the people who ultimately have control over the tools that spy on kids, on citizens, on visitors, on Internet users and on members of our governments.

Designing a surveillance regime whose first line of defense is "Come on, we're all good people, what could go wrong?" is either naive or cynical on its face. But to continue to do so when we know that so many surveillance barons are monumentally unfit to serve as honorable guardians of our privacy is just plain evil.

No government is immune to corruption and graft, and that goes for the surveillance industrial complex as well, whether that’s alleged bribery by red-light camera vendors in 13 states or an infosec provider paying out kickbacks for Army contracts. In 2012, SAIC—the contractor on Oakland’s Domain Awareness Center—agreed to pay a $500 million fine in conjunction with another kickback and fraud scheme.  Often, contractors caught in one questionable deal in one jurisdiction continue to operate elsewhere with impunity.

That’s why decisions over surveillance policy must be conducted in the light of day, not in closed meetings between politicians and suspicious contractors, some of whom will go to any lengths to capture lucrative national security contracts.

In San Diego, Azano and his cohorts are under investigation for bribery and circumventing prohibations against foreign nationals spending money in U.S. electoral campaigns. The scandal has also cast a shadow of doubt over several officials who benefitted from his funds, including the San Diego County District Attorney, who admitted she met with Azano at his home just before he started spending money to support her as a candidate.

There is no evidence at this stage that the region’s top prosecutor did anything illegal. However, what Azano expected in return for his investment (first for a mayoral bid, which she lost, and then her D.A. reelection effort) remains a mystery.

In an interview with U-T San Diego, the only issue the D.A. could recall discussing with Azano was his company’s software in Mexico.  According to the timeline, this conversation meant that Azano was likely discussing his deal with the Mexican government months before the Mexican public learned about the contracts through the press.  Both mayors and district attorneys are highly influential in determining such law enforcement priorities; Azano’s agents allegedly asked the candidate who eventually did become mayor to fire the police chief and replace him with someone of their choosing.

Surveillance Evangelist Arrested in California [Dave Maass/EFF]

(Image: Corruption Starts Here., a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from intangible's photostream)