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[liberationtech] Liberation & Control Technologies Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

Yosem Companys companys at stanford.edu
Thu Jul 2 08:18:49 PDT 2009


[image: Forbes.com]


Digital Tools
*Enabling Good And Evil Online*
Lee Gomes, 07.02.09, 6:00 AM ETBURLINGAME, Calif. -

What would you think of a tech company whose products allowed a repressive
government to track down dissidents on the Web? Not much, I'd bet. But how
about a company whose products were used by Internet service providers to
break up organized crime rings that were stealing wi-fi passwords? You'd
probably want to give them a medal.

Unfortunately for those seeking tidy moral categories, the two products are
one and the same. It's a fact of life about digital technologies that we are
still only reluctantly getting used to: Like paper or electricity or
automobiles, what's done with them depends entirely on the moral character
of the people who use them. Internet routers are the same everywhere in the
world, and all of them allow administrators to block certain Web sites; the
capability is inherent in the product. In open societies, that feature is
used to shut off spammers, botnets and porn sites. In closed societies, it
silences the likes of Wikipedia.

This reminder is necessary on account of recent reports about how European
telecom companies have sold "deep packet inspection" technology to the
government in Tehran. These devices to allow an Internet service
provider--which in Iran means the government--to look inside the packets of
data that make up all Web traffic, and thus see what people are concerning
themselves with. It's as if someone had sold the regime specially designed
eavesdropping equipment that can surreptitiously be placed in the offices of
reform-minded journalists.

Actually, deep packet inspection is built into the monitoring equipment used
by network administrators everywhere; it has been around in various forms
since the beginning of the Web. (It used to be called "packet sniffing.")
There are scores of companies in the business; the folks at one of them,
WildPackets, in Walnut Creek, Calif., says its products are mainly used for
network diagnostics. It's often necessary for a network administrator to be
able to look inside packets to get to the bottom of why a network is
performing badly, says Jay Botelho, the company's director of product
management.

Robert Guerra, who directs the Global Internet Freedom Initiative for
Freedom House, the Washington, D.C., advocacy group, says that the hardware
used by closed and open networks is essentially the same; what's different
is the way the hardware is set up. "It's really difficult to make equipment
that is different for a government like China than you'd make for the rest
of the world," he explains.

A Cisco spokesman makes the same point. If Cisco were to sell routers to
Iran--it doesn't now because U.S. law forbids it--the equipment would be no
different from what it sells to AT&T or Stanford University.

This is not to say that U.S. tech companies are always blameless in their
interactions with repressive governments. Yahoo!, for example, was
criticized for providing information (stored outside of China) about its
users to officials in Beijing. The company could have refused the request,
since there is nothing inherent about running a search engine that requires
a company to turn over the data it collects in the process. Yahoo, of
course, said it was simply complying with local laws.

Rigorous amorality is an enduring characteristic of digital technology.
Encryption is the best example; the same software that allows you to buy a
book on Amazon without worrying about hackers also lets terrorists use
e-mail to plan an attack without police being able to know what's up. It
would be nice to have one without the other, but it can't happen.

So the next time you read an alarmist story about a tech company providing
tools to repressive governments that allow it to spy on the Internet
activities of its citizens, be a little skeptical. Chances are the wrong
person is getting the blame.
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