Special report on Internet surveillance, focusing on five governments and five companies that are Enemies of the Internet
Today, 12 March, World Day Against Cyber-Censorship, Reporters Without Borders is releasing a Special report on Internet surveillance, available at surveillance.rsf.org. It looks at the way governments are increasingly using technology that monitors online activity and intercepts electronic communication in order to arrest journalists, citizen-journalists and dissidents. Around 180 netizens worldwide are currently in prison for providing news and information online.
For this year’s “Enemies of the Internet” report, Reporters Without Borders has identified Five State Enemies of the Internet, five “spy” states that conduct systematic online surveillance that results in serious human rights violations. They are Syria, China, Iran, Bahrain and Vietnam. Surveillance in these countries targets dissidents and has grown in recent months. Cyber-attacks and intrusions, including the use of malware against dissidents and their networks, are on the increase.
China, whose Electronic Great Wall is probably the world’s most sophisticated censorship system, has stepped up its war on the use of anonymization tools and has enlisted private-sector Internet companies to help monitor Internet users. Iran has taken online surveillance to a new level by developing its own national Internet, or “Halal Internet.” As regards Syria, Reporters Without Borders has obtained an unpublished document – a 1999 invitation by the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment to bid for a national Internet network in Syria – which shows that its Internet was designed from the outset to include extensive filtering and surveillance.
Without advanced technology, authoritarian regimes would not be able to spy on their citizens. Reporters Without Borders has for the first time compiled a list of five “Corporate Enemies of the Internet,” five private sector companies that it regards as “digital era mercenaries” because they sell products that are used by authoritarian governments to commit violations of human rights and freedom of information. They are Gamma, Trovicor, Hacking Team, Amesys and Blue Coat.
Trovicor’s surveillance and interception products have enabled Bahrain’s royal family to spy on news providers and arrest them. In Syria, Deep Packet Inspection products developed by Blue Coat made it possible for the regime to spy on dissidents and netizens throughout the country, and to arrest and torture them. Eagle products supplied by Amesys were discovered in the offices of Muammar Gaddafi’s secret police. Malware designed by Hacking Team and Gamma has been used by governments to capture the passwords of journalists and netizens.
“Online surveillance is a growing danger for journalists, citizen-journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Regimes seeking to control news and information increasingly prefer to act discreetly. Rather than resort to content blocking that generates bad publicity and is early circumvented, they prefer subtle forms of censorship and surveillance that their targets are often unaware of.
“As surveillance hardware and software provided by companies based in democratic countries is being used to commit grave human rights violations, and as the leaders of these countries say they condemn violations of online freedom of expression, it is time they took firm measures. Above all, they should impose strict controls on the export of digital arms to countries that flout fundamental rights.”
Negotiations between governments already led in July 1996 to the Wassenaar Arrangement, which aims to promote “transparency and greater responsibility in transfers of conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies, thus preventing destabilizing accumulations.” Forty countries, including France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States are nowadays party to the agreement.
By demonstrating the importance of online information, the Arab Spring reinforced authoritarian governments’ understanding of the advantages of monitoring and controlling Internet data and communication. Democratic countries also seem increasingly ready to yield to the siren song of the need for surveillance and cyber-security at any cost. This is evident from all the potentially repressive laws and bills such as FISAA and CISPA in the United States, the Communications Data Bill in Britain and the Wetgeving Bestrijding Cybercrime in the Netherlands.
Reporters Without Borders has made a “digital survival kit” available on the WeFightCensorship.org website in order to help online news providers evade increasingly active and intrusive surveillance.