Australia’s leading telecommunications company, Telstra, has installed highly advanced surveillance systems to “vacuum” the telephone calls, texts, social media messages and internet metadata of millions of Australians so that information can be filtered and given to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
The Australian government’s electronic espionage agency, the Australian Signals Directorate, is using the same technology to harvest data flows carried by undersea fibre-optic cables in and out of Australia.
Confidential documents obtained by Fairfax Media reveal the secret technology used to trawl Australians’ telecommunications and internet data for analysis by ASIO, the ASD and law enforcement agencies.
All Australian telecommunications and internet service providers by law must maintain interception and data-collection capabilities for government.
The leaked documents reveal that a little-known Melbourne-based company is a key provider of the secret monitoring technology.
Newgen Systems, owned and managed by local telecommunications engineer Robert Perin, is the sole Australian supplier for Gigamon, a large Silicon Valley-based information technology firm that specialises in what it terms “network traffic visibility solutions”.
Gigamon’s hardware enables telecommunications and IT network administrators to track, inspect and analyse all data flows undetected without affecting the performance of networks.
A key application of the technology is interception of telecommunications and internet data.
In the words of a former Newgen employee, “Gigamon’s systems are designed to find not just a needle in a haystack, but bits of needles in many haystacks. We do that by taking all the hay, all the time. We take everything.”
Confidential Newgen documents describe the Gigamon technology as “a vacuum cleaner” that “sucks up unsynchronised and disaggregated data, filters and sorts it to re-create the original puzzle”.
Established in mid-2006, Newgen – now based in Hawthorn – targeted major telecommunications companies and internet service providers, as well as the ASD and ASIO, as potential customers.
Telstra quickly emerged as Newgen’s main customer with the first sales of Gigamon hardware occurring in early 2007. Although Telstra has bought a variety of Gigamon systems, a key purpose is “lawful interception” to provide data to ASIO, the Australian Federal Police and state law enforcement agencies.
In April 2010, Newgen submitted a proposal to Telstra’s “special projects” group for the installation of Gigamon hardware at 24 metropolitan locations around Australia to meet “a government-mandated regulatory requirement” for interception coverage as Telstra upgraded its network.
An initial rollout of Gigamon systems for Telstra’s top 10 exchanges was costed at $2.7 million, and Telstra’s purchases from Newgen in 2010 were worth more than $3.5 million.
Newgen’s first sales to the Defence Department were in 2008 and now total more than $3 million. Gigamon hardware has been acquired by the Defence Intelligence and Security Group, which includes the top-secret ASD, and by the Defence Materiel Organisation’s electronic warfare branch.
The Defence Department’s purchases include GigaVUE “traffic visibility nodes” – the standard building block for network monitoring – as well as GigaSMART technology, which modifies captured data, for example by screening out certain types of identity, financial or medical information.
The leaked Newgen documents show that the company provided briefings on new Gigamon hardware to ASD personnel in March 2011, after which Defence purchases increased significantly.
Mr Perin told Fairfax Media that Defence officials “asked a lot of questions [about Gigamon technology] but wouldn’t say how or where they are applying it”.
Newgen’s efforts to win business from Defence intelligence were supported by a partnership with New Zealand company Endace, a leading provider of advanced fibre-optic probes and network recording technology. The Defence Department began buying Endace products in 2008.
Newgen’s consultations with the ASD canvassed combining Gigamon and Endace systems with analytical software from Californian software company Splunk in a “technology stack” to produce “real time … intelligence”.
Splunk software is used by the US National Security Agency and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters and enables organisations to analyse “massive streams of machine data generated by websites, applications, servers, networks, mobile and other devices”.
Australian Defence intelligence has been buying Splunk software since at least 2009.
A Telstra spokesperson said the company was ”required to provide reasonable assistance to law enforcement and national security agencies in response to lawful requests from these agencies … we only disclose information to these agencies when we are legally required or authorised to do so.”
Newgen Systems isn’t exactly a household name. The Melbourne-based information technology company is a modest enterprise, virtually unknown outside the world of telecommunications and IT professionals.
The company’s publicity brochures and industry presentations are bland and not particularly informative. They describe Newgen as “a systems integration and network communications company” and a “niche player” providing “innovative solutions for complex networking and IT problems”.
Robert Perin, the Australian telecommunications engineer who founded and still owns the firm may be a little more forthcoming, describing Newgen as a “network analytics, monitoring and security organisation”, but he still doesn’t give much away.
What Newgen lacks in public profile, however, it enjoys in strategic positioning.
It sits in the shadows between the Australian government, Australia’s big telecommunications and internet service providers, especially Telstra, and the supplier of some of the most advanced mass surveillance technology available in the global marketplace. Business has been good for Newgen.
Until recently, you wouldn’t find the name Newgen emblazoned on the front of any corporate office. For six years the company’s principal place of business was Perin’s home in suburban Doncaster. Only in May this year did the company acquire a modest front office in an office block on Burwood Road in Hawthorn East.
Leaked Newgen documents show early company meetings between Perin and his close colleagues, fellow IT industry veterans Bill Crocaris and Brad Hill, were held at the “Nook” at the Matthew Flinders Hotel in Chadstone.
Behind these modest beginnings was Newgen’s alliance with the Silicon Valley-based company Gigamon, developer of some of the world’s most advanced IT network monitoring technology.
Gigamon was established in 2003 and began shipping its distinctive “orange boxes”, highly sophisticated modules that switch and copy data flows within large telecommunication and computer networks, two years later.
The company describes itself as “a world leader in Traffic Visibility Fabric solutions”, enabling network managers to achieve “complete network traffic visibility” through “100 per cent packet capture” without impacting on network performance.
The language describing Gigamon’s products is often highly technical, if not impenetrable to non-IT specialists. Put simply, Gigamon’s technology addresses a basic problem for modern network managers and intelligence agencies: how to look into vast torrents of data flowing through computer networks, data centres and along high-speed fibre-optical cables without impeding the performance of such networks.
In short, how do you find a needle in a haystack? Or more to the point, how do you find a few bits of a needle scattered among many, many haystacks? The answer is to vacuum up all the haystacks, and do so without creating bottlenecks or other problems. To achieve this, data flows are mirrored, copied and then subjected to filtering and analysis using a wide variety of tools without impeding the efficiency of networks.
Confidential Newgen documents describe the Gigamon technology as “a vacuum cleaner” that “sucks up unsynchronised and disaggregated data, filters and sorts it to recreate the original puzzle”.
This novel technology has a wide range of applications, including network security and management, but significantly includes telecommunications and internet data interception.
Being one of the first to bring a new product into the marketplace is a huge advantage and the past decade has been a boom time for Gigamon.
The company’s success has been fuelled by the global explosion of telecommunications traffic and the rapidly growing number and scale of data centres. Growth has also been driven by what Gigamon describes as “unrelenting” government demands for “unrestricted access for lawful interception in all manners of digital communications.”
Gigamon now exports its hardware to more than 40 countries. The company has offices in the US, the UK, Russia, China, Hong Kong and Singapore as well as in Australia, where Newgen acts as its representative.
Gigamon is coy about its clients but leaked Newgen documents show they include major US telecommunications and internet service providers, including AT&T, Sprint, Comcast and Time Warner Cable; computer and networking companies including Apple and eBay; and major financial institutions such as MasterCard and Merrill Lynch.
Government agencies and defence contractors are also prominent among Gigamon’s customers, which in the US include the Defence Department, the National Security Agency, the Defence Advanced Projects Research Agency and the Defence Information Systems Agency as well as aerospace giants Raytheon and Lockheed Martin; and telecommunications equipment supplier Harris. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police is another customer.
Interestingly, Gigamon began to move into the Russian market in 2009 with a company spokesperson declaring “there is a bright future for Gigamon in the Russian Federation”. The company hasn’t revealed its Russian customer list, but at a trade show in the US in late 2011 Gigamon representatives gave a presentation in which they mentioned “they’d just done a huge install with Russia . . . allowing the government to monitor data of its citizens.”
When Gigamon listed on the New York Stock Exchange in June this year the company was valued at more than $680 million.
Robert Perin won’t go into the details of how Newgen became the sole supplier of Gigamon technology in Australia and New Zealand other than to say he benefited from “industry contacts”.
Whatever the precise connections, Newgen secured access to a highly innovative technology that was in demand as Australia’s telecommunications sector was undergoing rapid expansion and change and as Australia’s intelligence agencies were ramping up operations in the “war on terrorism”.
Early Newgen business plans show telecommunications and surveillance were the firm’s top marketing priorities.
Industry contacts helped and Telstra quickly emerged as Newgen’s main customer with the first sales of Gigamon hardware taking place in early 2007.
Defence’s published contract lists are uninformative, referring only to purchases from Newgen of “computer equipment and accessories”, “communications devices” and “data access switches”.
Only in one case is there a public reference, apparently inadvertent, to the acquisition of “Gigamon hardware”.
When interviewed by Fairfax Media, Perin said that he doesn’t know what the Defence Department does with Newgen’s products. “They interrogate us about the technology, but they don’t tell us,” he says. However, he also said that on one occasion Newgen had “tracked” the movement of a piece of Gigamon equipment and using Google Maps discovered it was being used at “a Defence facility in Western Australia”.
Moreover, notes written by another Newgen representative involved in training Defence personnel do refer to the Australian Signals Directorate’s use of Gigamon equipment for “LI” [lawful interception] including in the context of “HC [high capacity fibre]-optic cables – o/s [overseas] links 10 Gbps [gigabits per second], 40 Gbps, 100 Gbps.”
In May last year, Gigamon congratulated Newgen for supporting its “leadership position” in the Australian market “with a strong emphasis on telcos”.
Both companies hope for bigger things. “With the history of accomplishment that we share with Newgen, we know they have the expertise, knowledge and support infrastructure to continue our expansion in the region,” Gigamon’s vice-president of sales in the Asia Pacific and Japan, David Sajoto, said.
Having maintained a low profile, Newgen probably won’t appreciate much public attention, and it should be emphasised that the company is a legitimate enterprise providing products that, in Australia, support lawful government intelligence operations.
Whether such all-encompassing collection efforts are justifiable is, however, a very legitimate matter of public debate.
Some commentators to talk of the emergence of a “surveillance industrial complex” and there’s no doubt that today’s modern intelligence machinery could not achieve its all-pervasive reach, across the globe and into intimate details of individual lives, without the assistance of the companies that provide the foundations of the ongoing IT revolution.
Newgen and Gigamon are just a small part of a multibillion dollar a year trade in which private firms are selling spying tools and mass surveillance technologies to governments of all persuasions to scoop up millions of emails, text messages and phone calls.
Research by Privacy International, an independent watchdog group focused on the proliferation of surveillance technology, has found more than 338 companies offering a total of 97 different technologies worldwide.