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Boom times for surveillance tech

Vendors at secretive confab tout tools aplenty that can hack cell phones and computers, plus gear that can record all Internet communications in a given country, documents published by The Wall Street Journal show.

Surveillance has come a long way in the past decade.

Spurred in part by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, surveillance has become a more important method of trying to protect people from terrorist activity, or to root out dissident activity. And there's no shortage of companies looking to supply the gear that can do those jobs.

Some of the tech employed includes tools that allow governments to hack into individuals' cell phones and computers, as well as "massive intercept" equipment that can record all Internet communications in a country, according to documents obtained and cataloged by The Wall Street Journal. The documents, some 200-plus marketing materials from 36 companies, were obtained by people who attended a secretive security conference last month.

Many of the technologies at the show related to monitoring of vast amounts of data. One company "targeted or mass capture of 10s of thousands of simultaneous conversations from fixed or cellular networks." Another company describes how it helped "major mobile operator in China" conduct "real-time monitoring" of cell phone Internet content.

The annual retail market for surveillance tools has ballooned from almost nothing in 2001 to $5 billion this year, the Journal reported, citing data from TeleStrategies, the show's operator. The companies operating in this sector contend that their products are intended to catch criminals and are sold only to governments and law enforcement agencies.

However, some companies find they are getting unwanted attention as a result of the new business. Cisco Systems found itself on the receiving end of a lawsuit earlier this year that accused the tech giant of supplying and helping to maintain a surveillance system that allowed the Chinese government to track and censor a spiritual group's Internet activities. Cisco representatives denied the charges and said it sells the same equipment in China that it does in other countries in compliance with U.S. government regulations.