Italian police forces have raided the offices of a company that sells surveillance technology to governments around the world. The company is suspected to have provided Syria with internet and telephone wiretapping gear in violation of a European embargo against the Bashar al-Assad regime, according to local news reports on Thursday.
Founded in 1996, Area Spa is a firm based near Milan that sells monitoring systems capable of capturing internet traffic, tapping conversations, and tracking targets through GPS, according to its official website.
The company claims its “real commitment” is “to ensure high ethical standards in its dealings with market and customers,” and “behave in an ethically proper manner.” But for years it’s been accused of selling technology to Syria, and in 2014 it agreed to pay a $100,000 penalty to the US government for exporting network monitoring equipment from the United States to Syria.
It’s unclear why the Italian authorities have launched a new investigation at this time. One report indicates the company was already being investigated for having stored “thousands” of wiretaps made by italian prosecutors who use Area Spa’s technology.
A spokesperson with the Financial Guard (Guardia di Finanza) said in an email that it would not comment because the investigation is currently underway. The prosecutor’s office in Milan also declined to comment when reached by phone. An employee of Area Spa said the company didn’t want to release any statements during a phone call with Motherboard.
The Financial Guard also seized 7 or 8 million euros from the company’s accounts, according to the news reports. The authorities, according to Il Corriere della Sera, suspect that in 2010 and 2011 Area Spa exported technology to the Syrian Telecom Establishment, the government-owned provider, knowing it would actually be used by Assad’s secret service.
The raid comes more than a year after another infamous Italian surveillance company, Hacking Team, got hacked by an internet vigilante and had all its secret spilled online. The leak, among many other things, revealed Hacking Team negotiated the sale of its spyware to Sudan, which at the time was under strict international embargoes. While the Italian government revoked the company’s global license to export surveillance, there’s no other public investigation of its past sales.
The raid on Area Spa is yet another reminder that surveillance has become a global business, where western companies often don’t hesitate to help sketchy governments around the world.
”Area Spa must be held to account if it broke the sanctions regime,” Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who’s been working on surveillance tech issues for years and was among the first to ring the alarm about Area Spa's activities in Syria, told Motherboard in an email. ”But it would be even better if we can prevent these type of sales from happening in the first place.