Parental controls cool down the Arab Spring

How American firms sell surveillance technology to repressive governments around the world.

Two years after the Arab Spring revolutions stunned the world — in part thanks to the impact of social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube — governments of all kinds have tightened their control of the Internet. Who is selling the technology to do that?

On December 5th, 18-year-old Mohamed Salem al-Zumer was driving in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates when plain-clothed security men stopped him, according to a report by the Emirates Center for Human Rights. They escorted him to his home and searched it for an hour after showing him a warrant that read simply: “matter of state security.” They grabbed Mohamed’s laptop and other electronic devices and took him to a secret holding center without even informing his closest relatives. What had Mohamed done? Formerly a media student, he had posted comments on the Internet supporting the activists known as the UAE Five, arrested in 2011 for insulting the country’s president and other government officials. (The activists were pardoned the next day, but the government continued to harass them by placing spyware on their computers.)

An Iranian internet user tries to log onto Facebook, only to find out government censors have blocked the website. (Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazl)

An Iranian internet user tries to log onto Facebook, only to find out government censors have blocked the website. (Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazl)

On the same date, a very different scene may have taken place at any American home. Imagine a teen going back home after school and rushing to open her laptop. Worried about inappropriate material on the Internet, her parents have decided to install some sort of parental control program which will filter any content they find unsafe. They can also set limits on how much time their daughter spends surfing the web and get reports on the sites she visits. A useful and necessary tool, some parents may think.

What do these two situations have in common? The technology behind both of them may well be the same: Deep Packet Inspection. Invented by the computer security industry in the democratic West, DPI is useful for network management, spam filtering, parental control and other more or less ethically and socially accepted purposes in democratic countries. But not only. Privacy advocates have pointed out that some Internet services providers are using DPI in more controversial ways, like targeted advertising and content monitoring for political or law enforcement purposes, like tracking criminals or detecting illegal file sharing.

A paper by the Swedish media scholar Christian Fuchs details how both the Gaddafi and Mubarak governments in Libya and Egypt used DPI to spy on their citizens. In fact, a single American company, Blue Coat Systems, has sold DPI technology to Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, according to a report by a research lab at the University of Toronto.

The end of innocence

In the rise of the Arab Spring’s 2010 and 2011 pro-democracy protests, the Tunisian Internet services, which the government controlled, used DPI technology to crack down on protesters during the months that lead to the fall of Ben Ali’s regime. Thanks to this software, Ben Ali’s men could hack into protesters’ Gmail, Yahoo, Twitter and Facebook accounts. Who sold them these programs? Researchers and activists have pointed at some Western companies that are supplying DPI technology to authoritarian governments. Particularly culpable, according to a report by the Opennet Initiative, was the U.S.-based firm SmartFilter.

Another well-known case involves the California-based company Narus. Its NarusInsight system performs real-time surveillance for public and corporate Internet communications. Timothy Karr, campaign director for Free Press and SavetheInternet.com, has reported in the Huffington Post that Narus sold DPI technology to the former Egyptian authoritarian regime. The Wall Street Journal discovered that Narus discussed doing a deal with Libya before Gaddafi’s regime collapsed. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which also practice Internet censorship, are among Narus’ other clients, according to the company’s website.The Internet’s use for the development of civil society is at present beyond question. However, the net is a double-edged sword: The same tools that empower citizens can also be used to hunt them down if they speak out against the powers that be. As writer and researcher on the political implications of technology Evgeny Morozov points out: “In our rush to celebrate the democratising power of the internet we have forgotten that it can also be a tool for repression.”

Surveillance technologies can easily and quietly be re-engineered to perform functions that are more or less ethically and socially acceptable in democratic countries to more controversial usages in all countries, democratic or not. Should the U.S. allow companies do this kind of business? In a global digital world, it is the responsibility of Internet users around the world to monitor technology companies and hold them accountable for their actions. If we want a free and open worldwide web, we all need to fight to guarantee civil rights on the net.

This article was first published on Latitude News website on February 3 2013.

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