Among other issues, Reporters Without Borders labeled Hacking Team (the team behind Neutrino) as one of five “Enemies of the Internet” in 2013 for its role in humanitarian abuses against journalists.
When Coinbase acquired Neutrino for an unspecified amount in February 2019, the news looked like business as usual: A cryptocurrency juggernaut had made another acquisition. But the company in question, specifically the ties it has to the unethical practices of one of its predecessors, suggests that the monolithic Coinbase may be joining the oligarchic ranks of its privacy-hostile, too-big-for-consumer-comfort counterparts in legacy tech.
THE TIES THAT DAMN
On its website, Italian blockchain analysis company Neutrino proudly advertises that its proprietary software offers all-in-one “solutions for law enforcement” and “financial services.” Its two flagships, XFlow nSpect and XFlow nSight, are billed as “comprehensive solution[s] for monitoring[,] analyzing and tracking cryptocurrency flows across multiple blockchains.” nSight was built to help exchanges and financial service companies like Coinbase to stay regulatorily compliant. nSpect, on the other hand, was built for “criminal investigations and intelligence gathering” and is specifically marketed toward law enforcement. Learn more about HYPIXEL SKYBLOCK BAZAAR FLIPPING
Continuing on with their work at Coinbase, the Neutrino team, a three-man show consisting of CEO Giancarlo Russo, CRO Marco Valleri and CTO Alberto Ornaghi, are no strangers to building complex computer monitoring software for law agencies.
In another life, they did it as Hacking Team, the notorious Italian software services firm whose dubious business practices made them an antagonist of the wider tech and privacy community. Hacking Team got their start when Valleri and Ornaghi (under the aliases NaGa and ALoR) sold man-in-the-middle attack software to the police force of Milan, Italy, in 2003. These two founders would later be joined by Russo, who acted as COO of the company.
Throughout its history, Hacking Team sold its services to oppressive regimes in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Sudan, Kazakhstan, Bahrain and Turkey, among others. These services centered around Hacking Team’s proprietary Remote Control System (RCS) software, a Trojan horse malware that gives users the ability to remotely access files, record keystrokes, take photos and read emails from any infected device.
Email leaks reported by The Intercept trace the team’s cyber footprints to human rights abuses around the world. Hacking Team’s RCS technology was used by the Ethiopian government (which ranks as one of the most oppressive in Africa, with a penchant for silencing free speech) to surveil and interfere with the operations of Ethiopian Satellite Television and Radio, a news outlet run by Ethiopian expats. The technology helped the Turkish government to spy on an American, and it was also sold to the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Service in 2012 for a whopping €960,000 (around $1,210,000 at the time), though the team shuttered Sudan’s access to their software in 2014 when the government’s clumsy implementation of the software showed that they weren’t “enough prepared for the product usage,” Hacking Team emails reveal. It also played its part in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia and the assault and arrest of UAE activist Ahmed Mansoor.
Reporters Without Borders labeled Hacking Team as one of five “Enemies of the Internet” in 2013 for its role in humanitarian abuses against journalists.
During the 2012 uprisings in Morocco that were inspired by the Arab Spring movement, RCS, under the control of the Moroccan government, singled out Mamfakinch.com, an outlet that published journalists who were vocal critics of the regime. The leaked emails prove that Hacking Team had been selling its software to Morocco since 2010. This would culminate in Mamfakinch’s hardware being infected by a Trojan horse virus, which originally masqueraded as a news tip.
“Mamfakinch.com came as the first citizen media portal to document protests, providing tools like mapping of protests and also articles. At the time it started, I was not a member. I was asked to join later by one of the co-founders,” Zineb, a pro-democracy activist who was involved with Mamfakinch, told Bitcoin Magazine.
The outlet employed the help of the Citizen Lab to dismantle the virus and trace it back to its Hacking Team source, though most of the damage had already been done by the time they consulted this help.
“Moroccan activists suffer tremendously from what government surveillance provides them with, and former ones like myself have seen what that can be like. From physical threats to family threats, and even worse threats to fellow activists who were part of the human rights and digital rights effort in Morocco,” she said.