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Surveillance Inc: How Western Tech Firms Are Helping Arab Dictators

As democratic movements spread in the Middle East, governments are cracking down, and that means big business for the companies who help them do it.
The Atlantic | 07.03.2012
Reliance means vulnerability, and the activists and citizen journalists of the Arab uprisings rely heavily on the Internet and mobile technology. They use text messaging to coordinate protests, for example, or social media sites to upload the photos and videos that then make it into mainstream global media. In the first protests in Tunisia, because traditional journalists could not get access, citizen journalists filled in, using YouTube and the live-streaming platform UStream to give the world -- including, for example, the Egyptians and Syrians who later began revolts of their own -- a window into the events there.

For all of the good this technology has done, activists are also beginning to understand the harm it can do. As Evgeny Morozov wrote in The Net Delusion, his book on the Internet's darker sides, "Denying that greater information flows, combined with advanced technologies ... can result in the overall strengthening of authoritarian regimes is a dangerous path to take, if only because it numbs us to potential regulatory interventions and the need to rein in our own Western corporate excesses."

The communications devices activists use are not as safe as they might believe, and dozens of companies -- many of them based in North America and Europe -- are selling technology to authoritarian governments that can be used against democratic movements. Such tools can exploit security flaws in the activists' technology, intercept a user's communications, or even pinpoint their location. In many cases, this technology has led to the arrest, torture, and even death of individuals whose only "crime" was exercising their universal right to free speech. And, in most of these cases, the public knew nothing about it.

Recent investigations by the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News have revealed just how expansively these technologies are already being used. Intelligence agencies throughout the Middle East can today scan, catalogue, and read virtually every email in their country. The technology even allows them to change emails while en route to their recipient, as Tunisian authorities sometimes did before the revolution.

These technologies turn activists' phones against them, allowing governments to listen in on phone calls, read text messages, even scan cell networks and pinpoint callers with voice recognition. They allow intelligence agents to monitor movements of activists via a GPS locator updated every fifteen seconds. And by tricking users into installing malware on their devices -- as is currently happening in Syria - government agents can remotely turn on a laptop webcam or a cell phone microphone without its user knowing.

In Syria recently, American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik were killed by a mortar attack that may have been targeted to the locations of their satellite phones. We don't know for sure how the Syrian army tracked them, but Lebanese intelligence had recorded Syrian officials as planning to target Western journalists, and following satellite phone signals is just one of the tech-aided ways they could have done it.

Syria and other abusive Middle Eastern regimes rely on technology companies such as Area SpA, the Italian firm that contracted with the regime there to build a surveillance center, and that pulled out only after exposure by Bloomberg News prompted protests at their Italian headquarters. There's also the American company Bluecoat Systems. When it was reported that their Internet-monitoring equipment had been re-sold to the Syrian government, a senior VP told the Wall Street Journal, "We don't want our products to be used by the government of Syria or any other country embargoed by the United States."

For all the evil of Syria's regime, it's hard to ignore the role and often the complicity of Western technology companies that can sometimes act as dictator's little helper. While Syria's use of surveillance has been particularly egregious and well-documented, this problem goes far beyond just one country. For years, Western firms have been selling surveillance equipment to the most brutal regimes. And while sales to Syria often violate sanctions policy, such companies can sell to many other authoritarian countries -- many of them U.S. and E.U. allies -- without repercussions.

In pre-revolutionary Tunisia, surveillance firms gave discounts to a government agency because the firms wanted to use the country for testing and bug-tracking. The technology was so advanced that it prompted the post-revolutionary head of the Tunisian government's Internet agency to remark, "I had a group of international experts from a group here lately, who looked at the equipment and said: 'The Chinese could come here and learn from you.'"

In Bahrain, dozens of political activists have testified that the security officers who detained and beat them also read transcripts of their text messages and emails likely gathered from technology purchased from Germany-based Trovicor, a former Nokia Siemens subsidiary. According to Bloomberg News, a spokesman for the latter confirmed the sale and maintenance of this equipment to the Bahraini government.

Qaddafi's regime was later found to have spied on Al Jazeera journalist Khaled Mehiri by monitoring his emails and Facebook messages using technology made by French company Amesys. Mehiri was later interrogated and threatened by the head of Libya's intelligence service. The reporters who found Mehiri's surveillance file in Tripoli's abandoned Internet monitoring center discovered similar files on many other journalists, human rights advocates, and democratic activists.

The mass surveillance industry is a large one -- estimates now put the global market at $5 billion per year. The businesspeople getting rich from the crackdown industry don't often talk to the media, but some of the few who do can seem less than concerned about their potential role in their clients' violence.

Jerry Lucas is the president of Telestragies Inc, the company that runs ISS World, the trade show circuit (also known as the "Wiretapper's Ball") that brings these companies and their clients together. Asked by the Guardian in November if he would be comfortable knowing that regimes in Zimbabwe and North Korea were purchasing the technology from his trade shows, he responded, "That's just not my job to determine who's a bad country and who's a good country." He added, "That's not our business, we're not politicians ... we're a for-profit company. Our business is bringing governments together who want to buy this technology."

This is the crux of the problem: These companies seem fully aware of what they're doing - after all, the better they understand how to help secret police find and terrorize dissidents, the better their products will do on the market -- but far less concerned about the implications. As Dutch member of the E.U. Parliament Marietje Schaake told us last week, "The bulk of this digital arms trade happens under the radar; through spin-offs of well-known companies, but mostly by players without a reputation to lose with consumers."

Schaake, who has been leading an effort in Europe to halt the sale of surveillance technologies to repressive regimes, helped pass E.U. export restrictions to some government actors in Syria. In the U.S., Rep. Chris Smith introduced a bill in the House that would require American companies listed on the stock exchange to report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on how they conduct due diligence on human rights issues.

Unfortunately, apart from the work of a few individuals, this problem has gone mostly ignored by Western governments, and the digital surveillance trade still seems to be flourishing. Congress, the E.U., and the U.N. all have the ability act -- by requiring the relevant companies to at least transparently evaluate whether or not their technology is aiding in human rights abuses, if not banning those sales outright -- but so far, even as dozens of Syrians die every day, they haven't.