Political Repression 2.0

Agents of the East German Stasi could only have dreamed of the sophisticated electronic equipment that powered Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s extensive spying apparatus, which the Libyan transitional government uncovered earlier this week. The monitoring of text messages, e-mails and online chats — no communications seemed beyond the reach of the eccentric colonel.

What is even more surprising is where Colonel Qaddafi got his spying gear: software and technology companies from France, South Africa and other countries. Narus, an American company owned by Boeing, met with Colonel Qaddafi’s people just as the protests were getting under way, but shied away from striking a deal. As Narus had previously supplied similar technology to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it was probably a matter of public relations, not business ethics.

Amid the cheerleading over recent events in the Middle East, it’s easy to forget the more repressive uses of technology. In addition to the rosy narrative celebrating how Facebook and Twitter have enabled freedom movements around the world, we need to confront a more sinister tale: how greedy companies, fostered by Western governments for domestic surveillance needs, have helped suppress them.

Libya is only the latest place where Western surveillance technology has turned up. Human rights activists arrested and later released in Bahrain report being presented with transcripts of their own text messages — a capacity their government acquired through equipment from Siemens, the German industrial giant, and maintained by Nokia Siemens Networks, based in Finland, and Trovicor, another German company.

Earlier this year, after storming the secret police headquarters, Egyptian activists discovered that the Mubarak government had been using a trial version of a tool — developed by Britain’s Gamma International — that allowed them to eavesdrop on Skype conversations, widely believed to be safe from wiretapping.

And it’s not just off-the-shelf technology; some Western companies supply dictators with customized solutions to block offensive Web sites. A March report by OpenNet Initiative, an academic group that monitors Internet censorship, revealed that Netsweeper, based in Canada, together with the American companies Websense and McAfee (now owned by Intel), have developed programs to meet most of the censorship needs of governments in the Middle East and North Africa — in Websense’s case, despite promises not to supply its technology to repressive governments.

Unfortunately, the American government, the world’s most vociferous defender of “Internet freedom,” has little to say about such complicity. Though Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton often speaks publicly on the subject, she has yet to address how companies from her country undermine her stated goal. To add insult to injury, in December the State Department gave Cisco — which supplied parts for China’s so-called Great Firewall — an award in recognition of its “good corporate citizenship.”

Such reticence may not be entirely accidental, since many of these tools were first developed for Western law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Western policy makers are therefore in a delicate spot. On the one hand, it is hard to rein in the very companies they have nurtured; it is also hard to resist the argument from repressive regimes that they need such technologies to monitor extremists. On the other hand, it’s getting harder to ignore the fact that extremists aren’t the only ones under surveillance.

The obvious response is to ban the export of such technologies to repressive governments. But as long as Western states continue using monitoring technologies themselves, sanctions won’t completely eliminate the problem — the supply will always find a way to meet the demand. Moreover, dictators who are keen on fighting extremism are still welcome in Washington: it’s a good bet that much of the electronic spying done in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt was done with the tacit support of his American allies.

What we need is a recognition that our reliance on surveillance technology domestically — even if it is checked by the legal system — is inadvertently undermining freedom in places where the legal system provides little if any protection. That recognition should, in turn, fuel tighter restrictions on the domestic surveillance-technology sector, including a reconsideration of the extent to which it actually needs such technology in our increasingly privacy-free world.

As countries like Belarus, Iran and Myanmar digest the lessons of the Arab Spring, their demand for monitoring technology will grow. Left uncontrolled, Western surveillance tools could undermine the “Internet freedom” agenda in the same way arms exports undermine Western-led peace initiatives. How many activists, finding themselves confronted with information collected using Western technology, would trust the pronouncements of Western governments again?

By Evgeny Morozov, a visiting scholar at Stanford University and the author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.

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