Containing Weapons of Mass Surveillance

My latest article in Foreign Policy argues that President Obama is on the right track with Monday’s executive order, but the United States needs to get tougher on the global digital arms race. I conclude:

President Obama has certainly taken a step in the right direction with Monday’s executive order. But the executive branch and Congress will need to do much more if they want to stem electronic abuses against activists in Iran and Syria — let alone anywhere else. It’s time to take decisive action to stop American and other multinationals from aiding and abetting the wrong side in the global digital arms race.

Read the whole thing here.

The article contains a late-breaking update. After my deadline had passed, I managed to reach a spokesperson at the Department of Commerce, who confirmed that an investigation of Blue Coat is “ongoing.” Blue Coat is the California-based company whose surveillance and censorship devices turned up in Syria last year. I described the circumstances in the article as follows:

Last October, the international activist group Telecomix published log files taken from 13 Blue Coat devices deployed by the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment to monitor and block users’ activity. Facing scrutiny over apparent violation of a strict U.S. embargo against technology sales to Syria, Blue Coat later told the Wall Street Journal that these devices were shipped to a Dubai reseller that claimed the final destination as Iraq. In December, the U.S. Department of Commerce placed restrictions on a person and an entity in the United Arab Emirates for having sold the devices to Syria. But questions remain about what Blue Coat really knew or didn’t know, because after installation in Syria the devices transmitted regular automatic status messages back to the company’s computer servers. Blue Coat claims that it doesn’t monitor the origin of such messages.

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Internet Freedom Starts at Home

I have just written an essay for Foreign Policy on the Global Online Freedom Act and why the United States needs to do a better job of practicing at home what it preaches for the world. Here is how it begins:

“An electronic curtain has fallen around Iran,” U.S. President Barack Obama warned in a recent video message marking the Persian New Year. Government censorship and surveillance, he said, make it more difficult for Iranians to “access the information that they want,” denying “the rest of the world the benefit of interacting with the Iranian people.”

Implied though not explicit in Obama’s remarks was the idea that if Iran’s Internet were freer and more open, Iran’s relationship with the world generally — and the United States in particular — would be different. Cases like Iran are the main driver of Washington’s bipartisan consensus around the idea that a free and open global Internet is in the United States’ strategic interest.

Yet more than two years after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her first speech declaring “Internet freedom” to be a major component of U.S. foreign policy, it turns out that many of the most sophisticated tools used to suppress online free speech and dissent around the world are actually Made in the USA. American corporations are major suppliers of software and hardware used by all sorts of governments to carry out censorship and surveillance — and not just dictatorships. Inconveniently, governments around the democratic world are pushing to expand their own censorship and surveillance powers as they struggle to address genuine problems related to cybercrime, cyberwar, child protection, and intellectual property.

Even more inconveniently, the U.S. government is the biggest and most powerful customer of American-made surveillance technology, shaping the development of those technologies as well as the business practices and norms for public-private collaboration around them. As long as the U.S. government continues to support the development of a surveillance-technology industry that clearly lacks concern for the human rights and civil liberties implications of its business — even rewarding secretive and publicly unaccountable behavior by these companies — the world’s dictators will remain well supplied by a robust global industry.

Click here to read the rest.

Netizen Report: Fight for the Future Edition

By monashosh on Flickr

Meet Khaled Alaa Abdel Fattah, born last Tuesday to two Egyptian cyber-activists: mother Manal Bahey al-Din Hassan and father Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who is currently in prison. Khaled is named after Khaled Said, the young man whose violent death at the hands of police in 2010 became a symbol and rallying point for activism that brought down the Mubarak regime earlier this year.”

Little Khaled was born as Internet-driven activism in another part of the world, Russia, is bringing a new generation of young people – many of whom had never participated in a protest beforeinto the streets to oppose election results that they believe to have been rigged in the ruling party’s favor. One blogger told TIME magazine that he risked reprisals by United Russia supporters to post flyers around Moscow on the eve of the election, calling on people to vote against them. One flyer said:

“One day, your child will ask you, Papa, what were you doing when the crooks and thieves were robbing our country blind?”

People like Alaa, Syrian blogger Razan Ghazzawi who was arrested on the Jordanian border last weekend, and Ali Abdulemam, the Bahraini blogger who has been in hiding since February, are all fighting for a world in which their own children will be able to speak their minds and participate in opposition politics without going to prison. But what about the rest of us? To echo the Russian blogger’s question:

What are we doing to make sure that our children will even be able to use the Internet to fight for their rights speak truth to power?

The war for freedom and control of the Internet continues to rage. To get the full rundown, check out the latest Netizen Report on Global Voices Advocacy. Since September I have been working with the Global Voices team and several volunteers to publish these twice monthly updates on global developments related to the power dynamics between citizens, companies and governments on the Internet. You can even subscribe to them by e-mail here.

Surveillance technologies and “apolitical” corporations

Since the book’s manuscript was finalized in August, there has been a steady stream of headlines recently about the use of Western surveillance technology by repressive regimes, adding to the cases I described in Chapter 4 and elsewhere. One of the biggest stories has been the revelation by the hacktivist group Telecomix that the Syrian government continues to use censorship and monitoring devices manufactured by the California-based company Blue Coat. Late last month the company has finally acknowledged that at least thirteen of its devices are being used by Syria.

Today, The Guardian has an amazing article titled “Governments turn to hacking techniques for surveillance of citizens.” It describes the annual Intelligence Support Systems (ISS) World Americas  conference, at which surveillance firms share tips on the latest “lawful interception” techniques used to spy on citizens. The companies showed little concern for how this technology can be and is being abused around the world. An excerpt:

Jerry Lucas, the president of the company behind ISS World, TeleStrategies, does not deny surveillance developers that attend his conference supply to repressive regimes. In fact, he is adamant that the manufacturers of surveillance technology, such as Gamma International, SS8 and Hacking Team, should be allowed to sell to whoever they want.

“The surveillance that we display in our conferences, and discuss how to use, is available to any country in the world,” he said. “Do some countries use this technology to suppress political statements? Yes, I would say that’s probably fair to say. But who are the vendors to say that the technology is not being used for good as well as for what you would consider not so good?”

Would he be comfortable in the knowledge that regimes in Zimbabwe and North Korea were purchasing this technology from western companies? “That’s just not my job to determine who’s a bad country and who’s a good country. 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.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has proposed a two-part “know your customer” framework for surveillance equipment:

  1. Companies selling surveillance technologies to governments need to affirmatively investigate and “know your customer” before and during a sale.  We suggest something for human rights similar to what most of these companies are already required to do under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the export regulations for other purposes, and
  2. Companies need to refrain from participating in transactions where their “know your customer” investigations reveal either objective evidence or credible concerns that the technologies provided by the company will be used to facilitate human rights violations.

Click here for further details. One of the broader problems, of course, is that the market for ever-more sophisticated surveillance equipment feeds unaccountable abuses of power not only by authoritarian regimes but also by democratic governments.

As long as engineers and companies claim to have no responsibility for the political context in which their inventions and products are used, the problem is going to grow worse. This problem of “amoral” technology being used for immoral purposes has been exacerbated in the Internet age, but it has been around a lot longer. In a talk I gave last week at the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference, I played a video clip from Tom Lehrer‘s early 1960’s song about ex-Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun:

The lyrics :

Gather round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun,
A man whose allegiance
Is ruled by expedience.
Call him a Nazi, he won’t even frown.
“Ha, Nazi Schmazi,” says Wernher von Braun.

Don’t say that he’s hypocritical,
Say rather that he’s apolitical.

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.

Some have harsh words for this man of renown,
But some think our attitude
Should be one of gratitude,
Like the widows and cripples in old London town
Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun.

You too may be a big hero,
Once you’ve learned to count backwards to zero.
“In German oder English I know how to count down,
Und I’m learning Chinese,” says Wernher von Braun