Shady agencies at the service of democratically elected governments are among the worst online spies in the world, media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières said on Wednesday, putting them on the same level as offenders in Iran, China and Saudi Arabia.
In the latest installment of the "Enemies of the Internet" report, wholesale spying by "free world" services – much of it exposed by US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden – is offered no distinction from the unabashed surveillance carried out by the world's worst dictatorships.
In July last year, just days after France reacted angrily to claims its Washington DC embassy was spied on by the US, French daily Le Monde published 'revelations' that French intelligence services have been operating a similar mammoth spying operation in France.
According to the newspaper, the French intelligence services record the signals from all computers and telephones through the country and information surrounding phone calls, emails and text messages is all stored. The actual content of the messages is not, however.
“The goal is to know who is talking to who and to establish links between certain targets and identify certain cells,” Le Monde writes.
“Politicians know about it, but keeping it secret is the rule. This French Big Brother is illegal and not subject to controls,” the newspaper claimed at the time.
To RSF, agencies such as the US National Security Agency, Britain's GCHQ and the Centre for Development Telematics in India embrace the worst methods of snooping in the name of governments that purportedly hold freedom of speech as a national priority.
They have "hacked into the very heart of the Internet" and turned a collective resource "into a weapon in the service of special interests" that flout the "freedom of information, freedom of expression and the right to privacy".
"The NSA and GCHQ have spied on the communications of millions of citizens including many journalists," the report by Reporters Sans Frontieres said.
The methods used, many of which NSA contractor Snowden revealed to the world last year before going into hiding in Russia, "are all the more intolerable" because they are then used by authoritarian countries such as Iran, China, Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia, the report said.
Also singled out by RSF are private companies that provide their most up-to-date powers of snooping at trade fairs that have become giant spying bazaars selling the best that technology can offer.
It is at these shows hosted regularly around the world that profit-driven spy-ware firms link up with government agents or nervous multinationals that are in search of the newest ways to observe and control the Internet.
RSF argued that the censorship carried out by the Enemies of the Internet "would not be possible without the tools developed by the private sector companies to be found at these trade fairs."
With these tools, spies can track journalists anywhere in the world, RSF said.
Governments keen to impose censorship also help one another.
Iran has asked China to help it develop a local version of the electronic Great Wall that cuts off billions of Chinese from the Internet as seen by the rest of the world. China is active in Africa and central Asia too.
To stop this proliferation of snooping, RSF said a whole new legal framework to govern surveillance was "essential" with states needing to embrace transparency regarding the methods being used.
The fight for human rights, it warned, "had spread to the Internet".