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[liberationtech] New report on Internet Censorship and Surveillance in Turkmenistan

Rafal Rohozinski r.rohozinski at psiphon.ca
Fri Jan 4 08:41:49 PST 2013


Hi Eva,

Thanks for your note and good question.

The simple answer is that we could find no compelling evidence beyond  that reported by Privacy International, Citizen Lab and  the German news report that FINFISHER  was being operationally employed in Turkmenistan.  That's not for lack of looking. The report was built upon  interviews with people that have first-hand experience at the Ministry of Communication and Ministry of National Security, and civil society activists involved in political and new media activity. While it  appears that a pilot project may have been implemented sometime around 2010/11, we could find no evidence (from sources inside the ministry) that it was  actually  operationally employed,  nor were we able to track down any samples/technical evidence from the activist/ opposition community.

We had a similar situation with SORM. Our sources indicated that SORM equipment was installed on Turkmen core networks sometime in 2009.  Quite likely, this equipment came by way of a assistance program run by the Russian Ministry of Interior aimed at creating a CIS wide  monitoring system for cybercrime/cyber terrorism (Operation Proxy).  However, we found no evidence that the equipment was actually being used.

There may be reasons for this -  which are borne out through some of our interview work in Turkmenistan and elsewhere in Central Asia. 

First, the level of technical knowledge in government agencies and the telecommunication ministry in Turkmenistan is quite low. In general, the Ministry of  Communication has been very dependent on outside consultants and companies to install equipment (Including HuaWei and NOKIA). Once it's  installed, maintaining equipment is a challenge. As a result, generally only be most basic default settings and capabilities are used.  For example,  Turkmen telecom uses  equipment from Huawei and CISCO  that is capable of  advanced DPI. However, these capabilities are barely used to manage bandwidth and traffic. They  have not been used  to develop keyword lists for blocking.  Blocking is still done by way of IP address and domain name. (The same is true on mobile networks, where a Checkpoint firewall are used to filter traffic by domain and IP).

Second, the Turkmen  security regime is pervasive, and as a result has many more direct and simple ways of targeting " antisocial elements".   Online surveillance tends to be over-kill when they can easily accomplish things through direct surveillance, informants and other forms of physical controls.  We've also noted that in other Central Asia  countries  the security forces tend to co-opt criminal hackers in order to target specific individuals via electronic means. That means that the technical work is done by someone who actually knows what they're doing, and the results are more understandable and immediate to the security forces,  i.e., they can ask questions and target the hacker to get at stuff they want to see.   It's also important not to forget that security/ intelligence forces are by nature suspicious of anything outside of their control, including and especially "foreign built" systems and software.

Third,  security forces in Turkmenistan are much more concerned about opposition from radical groups, and criminal elements that they are with civil society opposition movements.  That's because  civil society in Turkmenistan is extremely  weak, and controllable through  arrest, detention, harassment. Criminal and radical groups are a lot more resilient, because  they are by design covert organizations and generally because of their incentive system, which can be ideological, or financial,  don't have the same fear of the regime, and, in the case of some criminal structures can be embedded in  state structures. As a result, my own observation is that  advanced surveillance means, (including SORM) are treated as a "scarce resource" and are focused on high-value targets that include criminal elements and radical groups.  A third group I'd add here are members of the regime itself, which tend to be more of a threat to the higher leadership than civil society groups. 

Lastly,  as we point out in the report, the Turkmen authorities have an ambivalent relationship to ICTs.  On the one hand, they recognize them as a important element of national development, and also revenue generation for the state ( and in particular, members of the elite).  On the other hand, they've seen how these technologies can be leveraged by opposition groups and so  are inclined towards imposing controls.  However, because  Turkmenistan remains such a highly controlled society overall, the fear of  civil society being mobilized through cyberspace is probably much less than it would be elsewhere and as a result, thus far, the necessity for surveillance has probably been less than in other Central Asian countries where the opposition movement has had space to organize.

I think the last point to mention is that we've tried to keep this report factual and based on verifiable information.  This means we had to make some editorial choices.   I'd be happy to amend the report with a fuller section on FINFISHER and would welcome any additional factual information that can be provided by members of this group, or elsewhere.

Best wishes,

Rafal




 


On Jan 3, 2013, at 7:11 PM, Eva Galperin <eva at eff.org> wrote:

> Thank you for sharing your report, Rafal. I read it with great interest.
> 
> I see that you devoted about a third of this report to Internet
> surveillance in Turkmenistan, but you don't mention Gamma or Finfisher
> even once. The discovery that Gamma International's products were being
> used to spy on citizens in over a dozen countries, including
> Turkmenistan, was a pretty major story last year. Was there a reason why
> you decided to leave it out of the report?
> 
> 
> ************************************************
> Eva Galperin
> International Freedom of Expression Coordinator
> Electronic Frontier Foundation
> eva at eff.org
> (415) 436-9333 ex. 111
> ************************************************
> 
> On 1/2/13 9:01 AM, Rafal Rohozinski wrote:
>> The SecDev Group has released a study of Internet censorship and surveillance in Turkmenistan.  The  report was commissioned and financially supported by the Open Society Foundations.  It is posted on the ONI Website , and can also be downloaded from here
>> 
>> Neither Here Nor There: Turkmenistan’s Digital Doldrums
>> 
>> 
>> Abstract
>> 
>> Turkmenistan is slowly emerging from decades of darkness. President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov has vowed to modernize the country by encouraging the uptake of new technology for economic development and more efficient governance. Hundreds of thousands of Turkmen citizens are now online. However, the country faces serious challenges as it prepares to go digital. Infrastructure is primitive, and public access is enforced by a state monopoly. Slow speeds, exorbitant pricing, and technological illiteracy all constitute major hurdles. A new study from the SecDev Group highlights the ambivalent policies and practices that have left Turkmenistan mired in the digital doldrums, torn between its desire to join the worldwide web and its compulsion to control cyberspace.
>> 
>> 
>> 
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