The Little-Known Company That Enables Worldwide Mass Surveillance
By Ryan Gallagher & Nicky Hager
Oct 23 2016
It was a powerful piece of technology created for an important customer. The Medusa system, named after the mythical Greek monster with snakes instead of hair, had one main purpose: to vacuum up vast quantities of internet data at an astonishing speed.
The technology was designed by Endace, a little-known New Zealand company. And the important customer was the British electronic eavesdropping agency, Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ.
Dozens of internal documents and emails from Endace, obtained by The Intercept and reported in cooperation with Television New Zealand, reveal the firm’s key role helping governments across the world harvest vast amounts of information on people’s private emails, online chats, social media conversations, and internet browsing histories.
The leaked files, which were provided by a source through SecureDrop, show that Endace listed a Moroccan security agency implicated in torture as one of its customers. They also indicate that the company sold its surveillance gear to more than half a dozen other government agencies, including in the United States, Israel, Denmark, Australia, Canada, Spain, and India.
Some of Endace’s largest sales in recent years, however, were to the United Kingdom’s GCHQ, which purchased a variety of “data acquisition” systems and “probes” that it used to covertly monitor internet traffic.
Documents from the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, previously disclosed by The Intercept, have shown how GCHQ dramatically expanded its online surveillance between 2009 and 2012. The newly obtained Endace documents add to those revelations, shining light for the first time on the vital role played by the private sector in enabling the spying.
Stuart Wilson, Endace’s CEO, declined to answer questions for this story. Wilson said in a statement that Endace’s technology “generates significant export revenue for New Zealand and builds important technical capability for our country.” He added: “Our commercial technology is used by customers worldwide … who rely on network recording to protect their critical infrastructure and data from cybercriminals, terrorists, and state-sponsored cybersecurity threats.”
Endace says it manufactures technology that allows its clients to “monitor, intercept and capture 100% of traffic on networks.” The Auckland-based company’s motto is “power to see all” and its logo is an eye.
The company’s origins can be traced back to Waikato University in Hamilton, New Zealand. There, in 1994, a team of professors and researchers began developing network monitoring technology using university resources. A central aim of the project was to find ways to measure different kinds of data on the internet, which was at that time only just beginning to take off. Within a few years, the academics’ efforts proved successful; they had managed to invent pioneering network monitoring tools. By 2001, the group behind the research started commercializing the technology — and Endace was formed.
Today, Endace presents itself publicly as focused on providing technology that helps companies and governments keep their networks secure. But in the past decade, it has quietly entered into a burgeoning global spy industry that is worth in excess of an estimated $5 billion annually.
In 2007, Endace representatives promoted their technology at a huge surveillance technology trade show in Dubai that was attended by dozens of government agencies from across the world. Endace’s advertising brochures from the show, which described the company’s products and promoted the need for greater state surveillance, were published by WikiLeaks in 2013.
One Endace brochure explained how the company’s technology could help clients “monitor all network traffic inexpensively.” It noted that telecommunications networks carry many types of information: Skype calls, videos, emails, and instant message chats. “These networks provide rich intelligence for law enforcement,” the brochure stated, “IF they can be accessed securely and with high precision.”