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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 January 2021

Idex 2019: The 'beaten up' $5m spy vans that hack phones 200 metres away

The television depiction of officers on stake-outs in the back of battered vehicles is no myth, a surveillance company says

Wispear's unassuming looking sky van on display at Idex. Victor Besa / The National
Wispear's unassuming looking sky van on display at Idex. Victor Besa / The National

If you spent millions of dollars on a brand new, custom-built vehicle you would expect it to look impressive.

But Tal Dilian, the head of Cypriot surveillance company WiSpear, specialises in selling state-of-the-art vans that look as old and beaten up as possible.

Its vehicles are equipped with high-end spying technology to allow intelligence operatives to listen in on targets, block communications and hack into phones and laptops from 200 metres away in an urban environment.

The firm even employs two people whose sole job it is to make new multi-million dollar vehicles appear old and uninteresting.

Each is built to specifications requested by intelligence agencies.

The front of the Speerhead 360 Long -Range Mobile Intelligence Platform. Victor Besa/The National
The vehicle is designed to look as dull as possible to avoid raising suspicion. Victor Besa / The National

A mock-up Chevrolet is on display at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference (Idex) this week. Also on display is everything from hunter drones, advanced small arms and military hardware of every kind.

The spy van has been given a paint job and covered in company branding.

But even in this display version, while around half a dozen TV and computer monitors and high-tech surveillance equipment is hidden in the back, there are no screens, GPS navigation or leather seats in the front, which has been made as dated as possible.

“Any policeman will tell you that the bad guy knows how to identify policemen from a long distance,” Mr Dilian said.

“They need to camouflage themselves, clandestine themselves. Each one of our customers chooses their own cars, whether it will be more or less fancy, it depends on the area they will work.”

He said many spy agencies want their vans to be disguised, for example, as a utility firm.

The back of the Speerhead 360 Long -Range Mobile Intelligence Platform. Victor Besa/The National. 
The Speerhead 360 Long Range Mobile Intelligence Platform can accommodate two or three crew. Victor Besa / The National.

“Many of them do. We have two guys – their mission is to make the car old," he said.

"It’s very funny to take a new car and make it as if it’s been on the road for years.”

The vehicles, he said, typically sold for between $5m (Dh18.4m) and $10m (Dh36.7m), depending on specifications. They can come with four equally bland looking backpacks, packed with technology so agents can leave the van and pursue targets, for example in a public place such as a shopping mall.

High-end versions come equipped with their own drone, which can be deployed from the van.

Officers can spend days at a time in the back of a parked van, Mr Dilian said. The backs of the vehicles usually have two people at work in them, but can accommodate three. The vans also have “a practical solution” that allow them to go to the toilet, he said.

Spearhead 360 Long -Range Mobile Intelligence Platform. Victor Besa/The National
The vans, branded with the company logo here, are often disguised as utility vans. Victor Besa / The National

“It [the toilet solution] is not so fun but I think people underestimate how hard it is to be a policeman,” he said.

WiSpear vans, designed in collaboration with Dubai-based firm Advanced Systems and Nexa Technologies in Paris, are secretly in operation in “most of the world”, Mr Dilian claimed, including the Middle East, Europe, Central, the Far East, South America and Central America.

He also claimed they have the capabilities to hack into phones made by companies like Apple and Google. The sophisticated technology on board has prompted concerns from privacy campaigners.

However, Mr Dilian said more advanced technology is needed as criminals become more aware of how to evade surveillance and use encrypted communication channels to coordinate their activities.

“They are becoming more and more educated, you listen to them or tap them, and they move in to the more encrypted means of communication, whether it’s WhatsApp or voiceover IP applications,” he said.

“In the more sophisticated world we have now, our customers, which are always government agencies, are facing challenges that are higher and higher. This is our way to provide them with a solution.”

Updated: February 18, 2019 07:36 PM

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