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[liberationtech] Atlantic: How Western Tech Firms Are Helping Arab Dictators

Kevin Hsu khsu at
Tue Mar 6 20:53:57 PST 2012

Article of interest from *The Atlantic Monthly*

Surveillance Inc: How Western Tech Firms Are Helping Arab Dictators By
Trevor Timm & Jillian C. York
Mar 6 2012, 7:01 AM ET

*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.*

[image: tunis march5 p.jpg]

A computer systems coordinator at Tunisia Television in Tunis / Reuters

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
*, 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
* and *Bloomberg <>
* 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
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
Syria - government agents can remotely turn on a laptop webcam or a
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
We don't know for sure how the Syrian army tracked them, but Lebanese
intelligence had recorded Syrian officials as planning to
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

In pre-revolutionary Tunisia, surveillance firms
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
"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
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
sale and maintenance of this equipment to the Bahraini government.

"The bulk of this digital arms trade happens under the radar.

Qaddafi's regime was later found to have spied on *Al Jazeera* journalist
Khaled Mehiri by monitoring his emails and Facebook messages
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
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
November if he would be comfortable knowing that regimes in Zimbabwe
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

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.
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