After Cyber Attack, "Hacking Team" Founder Speaks Out

After a devastating leak and allegations of working with oppressive regimes, the Milan technology firm’s founder responds to the critics.

Hacking Team founder David Vincenzetti
Hacking Team founder David Vincenzetti
Massimo Russo

MILAN â€" After weeks of silence, the day of truth has arrived. David Vincenzetti, the 47-year-old founder of the infamous Milanese technology firm Hacking Team, agreed to finally give his perspective on the devastating cyber attack on his company’s servers.

Hacking Team rose to prominence by producing Galileo, a suite of surveillance technologies that allow governments to intercept and decrypt data. More than 40 countries in the world use the product to infiltrate and monitor the communications of terrorists, traffickers and criminals. But the firm has attracted controversy for dealing with non-democratic clients â€" the governments of Sudan, Libya and Ethiopia, for example â€" who use the technology to crack down on opposition.

The recent cyber attack â€" which came to light when Hacking Team's Twitter account was taken over on July 6 â€" stole millions of documents from the firm’s servers, as well as parts of Galileo’s source code itself. The 400 gigabytes worth of data wound up on Wikileaks and is also available for download via torrent. The scale of the leak has set cyber security experts and government agencies around the world scrambling to evaluate the scope of the damage.

The fateful morning

“It was 3:15 a.m. when I was alerted about the attack,” Vincenzetti recalls. “We immediately shut down our main network and notified all our clients about the intrusion, and suggested that they suspend their usage of Galileo.”

“From our preliminary evaluations we believe that parts of the Galileo source code were stolen, as well as documents and emails,” he said. “Since then, we’ve dedicated ourselves to evaluating the damage and returning things to normality.”

Hacking Team’s top brass play down the risks of the leak, but they acknowledge they took a tough hit. Some of the leaked documents and codes will allow targets of government surveillance to verify if their devices have been compromised, but not for very long.

A July 14 announcement on the company's website said an update had fixed the issue. Vincenzetti said that by the end of the year Hacking Team will release version 10, which "will completely solve the problem.” Much like a regular antivirus program, Galileo can quickly become obsolete.

“This kind of cyber attack could only be carried out by government operatives. This wasn’t spontaneous. The attack was planned months before with considerable resources. The extraction of the data took a very long time, ” he says.

In addition to the Italian judicial inquiry, other investigations into the matter are underway. Vincenzetti declined to respond when asked if the U.S. authorities are also looking into the attack. When asked about the supposed “backdoors” in Galileo that would allow Hacking Team to monitor the program’s use, the founder bursts out laughing.

“They’re all lies,” he says. “More than 40 countries and 50 agencies around the world use our product, and none of them would use it before analyzing every single line of code.” Galileo also works under “customer isolation,” meaning that Hacking Team may install the software and release updates, but it cannot know how the product is used.

Strange bedfellows

“Yes, we did do business with Libya,” Vincenzetti admits. “But we did it when it seemed the Libyans were becoming our best friends. We had no relationship with Syria, but we did with Egypt and Morocco.” The situation with Ethiopia is a bit more complicated. “When we found out the Ethiopians used Galileo to spy on an opposition journalist we asked for an explanation, and at the end of 2014 we stopped supplying them,” he explains.

But the most controversial of Hacking Team’s former clients is Sudan, whose security services are notorious for their involvement in the war in Darfur. Vincenzetti admits working with Khartoum’s intelligence services, but he maintains â€" despite evidence to the contrary in the leaked documents â€" that the sales occurred before the passage of laws banning “dual use,” which forbade companies from selling surveillance technology to countries that could use it to intimidate the opposition.

“The geopolitical chessboard is constantly changing, and situations often evolve. But we are not arms dealers, we don’t sell rifles that can be used for years,” he says. After a few weeks without updates Galileo becomes useless, because new countermeasures to the program are released continuously.

Vincenzetti cites the hundreds of examples in which his firm’s tools helped infiltrate terrorist sleeper cells, discover “lone wolves,” resolve long-running criminal investigations and scour the deep web in search of images and information that would otherwise be unattainable.

“We also provide an artificial intelligence system that is able to make autonomous decisions,” he says. “For example, if someone picks up a phone to reply to a call, the software takes a photo by accessing the phone’s camera, revealing the identity of the person.”

Crossing the line?

“I’m not scared. Even after what happened I’m leaving it all behind and moving forward," he says. "Since last year I’ve been a victim of many attacks. They sabotaged my car, connecting the battery to the gas tank. Six months earlier a group of people wearing Anonymous masks broke into our office, vandalizing and stealing from it. But I am indestructible."

He is confident that his company will recover. “The experiences I’ve been through have made me stronger," he adds.

Vincenzetti is proud to help countries fight crime even as his firm operates on the fringes of legality, in the grey area between state-sanctioned work and outright criminality. And even if several documents, organizations and activists suggest otherwise, he is convinced that his company has never crossed that line.

Despite all the criticism, David Vincenzetti says he's sure of one thing: “We are the good guys.”

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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