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Sale of Clandestine Surveillance Equipment Available to the Government and “Select Clients”

by Kevin W. Bliss

Special interest groups are becoming more concerned with the government surveillance equipment provider, Special Services Group (SSG). As of early 2020, it had about $2.6 million in contracts with over a dozen U.S. agencies, including the FBI, CIA and ICE, selling covert surveillance equipment such as concealed cameras in vacuum cleaners, children’s car seats and tombstones.

CEO Cliff Emery also sits on the board of directors of the nonprofit national security focus group, the National Defense Industrial Association. His company’s website states that it does not advertise nor place product information on the website. Law enforcement, government agencies and “select clients” can contact the company for more information on any product in their brochure, titled the Black Book.

SSG’s logo is the pyramid with the floating eye seen on the back of the $1 bill. Government transparency advocates have expressed concern that others besides law enforcement can purchase its items.

Freddy Martinez, policy analyst for Open the Government, said, “I think one of the biggest concerns I have is the cost/size/capabilities of these devices. They keep getting cheaper, smaller and more capable all the time, and it’s unlikely that only law enforcement will be the only actors using them.”

Martinez and Beryl Lipton of MuckRock (another government transparency nonprofit) both filed Freedom of Information Act requests at the Irvine Police Department of California to obtain copies of the SSG’s Black Book. It lists a variety of surveillance devices concealed in alarm clocks, small tree trunks, rocks and trash cans. SSG also sells Bluetooth devices that fit completely in the mouth for hands-free communication with no visible signs, RFID cloning devices for access cards and fobs, and shadowing devices for gaining alarm panel PIN codes.

SSG is reported to have threatened Open the Government and MuckRock with legal action if they reported about the organization or its literature. They said the brochure was protected under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations and that any release of information could result in harm. “Please understand that while I understand a desire for government transparency, the release of information could result in very serious jeopardy of the lives of law enforcement and military users of the technology RIGHT NOW IN PARTICULAR DUE TO RECENT WORLD EVENTS ... The responsibility for any resulting harm should you go ahead and assist in the dissemination of this information to a wider public audience, while we may never know exactly where or how it damages innocent people, will fall squarely on your shoulders,” wrote an attorney for SSG to MuckRock. 

 

Sources: vice.com, theverge.com