Sari Horwitz, Shyamantha Asokan and Julie Tate
December 1, 2011
Northern Virginia technology entrepreneur Jerry Lucas hosted his first trade show for makers of surveillance gear at the McLean Hilton in May 2002. Thirty-five people attended.
Nine years later, Lucas holds five events annually across the world, drawing hundreds of vendors and thousands of potential buyers for an industry that he estimates sells $5 billion of the latest tracking, monitoring and eavesdropping technology each year. Along the way these events have earned an evocative nickname: The Wiretappers’ Ball.
The products of what Lucas calls the “lawful intercept” industry are developed mainly in Western nations such as the United States but are sold throughout the world with few restrictions. This burgeoning trade has alarmed human rights activists and privacy advocates, who call for greater regulation because the technology has ended up in the hands of repressive governments such as those of Syria, Iran and China.
“You need two things for a dictatorship to survive — propaganda and secret police,” said Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), who has proposed bills to restrict the sale of surveillance technology overseas. “Both of those are enabled in a huge way by the high-tech companies involved.”