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[liberationtech] Syria Crackdown Aided by U.S.-Europe Spy Gear

Aaron Swartz me at
Fri Nov 4 07:43:19 PDT 2011

As Syria’s crackdown on protests has claimed more than 3,000 lives
since March, Italian technicians in telecom offices from Damascus to
Aleppo have been busy equipping President Bashar al-Assad’s regime
with the power to intercept, scan and catalog virtually every e-mail
that flows through the country.

Employees of Area SpA, a surveillance company based outside Milan, are
installing the system under the direction of Syrian intelligence
agents, who’ve pushed the Italians to finish, saying they urgently
need to track people, a person familiar with the project says. The
Area employees have flown into Damascus in shifts this year as the
violence has escalated, says the person, who has worked on the system
for Area.

Area is using equipment from American and European companies,
according to blueprints and other documents obtained by Bloomberg News
and the person familiar with the job. The project includes Sunnyvale,
California-based NetApp Inc. (NTAP) storage hardware and software for
archiving e-mails; probes to scan Syria’s communications network from
Paris-based Qosmos SA; and gear from Germany’s Utimaco Safeware AG
(USA) that connects tapped telecom lines to Area’s monitoring-center

The suppliers didn’t directly furnish Syria with the gear, which Area
exported from Italy, the person says.

The Italians bunk in a three-bedroom rental apartment in a residential
Damascus neighborhood near a sports stadium when they work on the
system, which is in a test phase, according to the person, who
requested anonymity because Area employees sign non-disclosure
agreements with the company.

Mapping Connections

When the system is complete, Syrian security agents will be able to
follow targets on flat-screen workstations that display communications
and Web use in near-real time alongside graphics that map citizens’
networks of electronic contacts, according to the documents and two
people familiar with the plans.

[...] The price tag is more than 13 million euros ($17.9 million), two
people familiar with the deal say.

[...] “You may consider that any lawful interception system has a very
long sales process, and things happen very quickly,” [the CEO] says,
citing the velocity of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s fall, only a
year after pitching his Bedouin tent in a Rome park on a visit to
Italy. “Qaddafi was a big friend of our prime minister until not long

When Bloomberg News contacted Qosmos, CEO Thibaut Bechetoille said he
would pull out of the project. “It was not right to keep supporting
this regime,” he says. The company’s board decided about four weeks
ago to exit and is still figuring out how to unwind its involvement,
he says. The company’s deep- packet inspection probes can peer into
e-mail and reconstruct everything that happens on an Internet user’s
screen, says Qosmos’s head of marketing, Erik Larsson.

[...] Area is installing the system, which includes the company’s
“Captor” monitoring-center computers, through a contract with
state-owned Syrian Telecommunication Establishment, or STE, the two
people familiar with the project say. Also known as Syrian Telecom,
the company is the nation’s main fixed-line operator.


Schematics for the system show it includes probes in the traffic of
mobile phone companies and Internet service providers, capturing both
domestic and international traffic. NetApp storage will allow agents
to archive communications for future searches or mapping of peoples’
contacts, according to the documents and the person familiar with the

[...] Two people familiar with terms of the deal say that as a final
stage of the installation, the contract stipulates Area employees will
train the Syrian security agents who will man those workstations --
teaching them how to track citizens.

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