Saturday, February 12, 2011
Click Zzsst - Gotcha
By Ryan Singel, February 11, 2011
Egyptians capturing the revolution with their mobile phones and digital cameras.
US Congressman Bill Keating plans to introduce legislation putting limits on U.S. companies selling net monitoring equipment to repressive regimes, after news that a Boeing subsidiary sold powerful net inspection technology to Egypt’s state telecom.
“The Iranian and Egyptian protests have taught us that social media can be as powerful as any gun,” said Rep. Keating (D-Massachusetts). “Companies that are selling technology to countries that are using it to perpetuate human rights abuses must work with Congress to make this right.
“We should have the same safeguards – such as end user monitoring agreements – that we do when we sell weapons abroad.”
At issue is a company called Narus, which makes powerful deep packet inspection technology that can monitor the net’s fattest pipes to see what traffic is passing through — including reconstructing online phone calls, e-mails, instant messages, and web surfing activities.
Tim Karr, the campaign director for the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Free Press, noticed last week that Narus had sold its surveillance technology to the state-run Telecom Egypt, as well as to other repressive regimes including Saudi Arabia.
Karr says its time the U.S. government realized the power of such equipment to repress people and put limits on its distribution. That’s especially true in light of evidence from the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt that social networking sites such as Facebook can be powerful tools for organizing, publicizing, recruiting and sustaining pro-democracy forces, according to Karr.
Mubarak’s regime, which was toppled Friday after weeks of protest, was so threatened by power of the net to allow citizens to mobilize that it took the extraordinary step of shutting down Egypt’s internet and mobile phone networks for almost a week in late January.
During the protests, Egypt also imprisoned a number of online activists, including Google executive Wael Ghonim who administered one of the Facebook pages that served as an online café for organizing the protests.
It’s not clear what technology, if any, Egypt’s once feared intelligence services used to track them down.
But, as Evegny Morozov argues in his recent book “The Net Delusion”, social networking tools can make it easy for a repressive regime to track down activists. That’s clearly seen in Tunisia, where a government controlled ISP stole Facebook usernames and passwords in an attempt to erase anti-government pages.
That’s why Karr finds Narus’s sale of its technology to Egypt so egregious.
“Narus basically gave a hammer to a Mubarak regime that sees its political opponent as nails,” Karr said. “Congress or the state department can convince them to disclose the ways they are selling this tech and to whom and for what purposes.”
Egypt in particular galled Karr, since the Mubarak regime routinely jailed bloggers, and is counted as one of 13 “enemies of the internet” as compiled by Reporters Without Borders.
Narus declined to respond to multiple voice mail messages left for its CEO Greg Oslan this week.
Controversy is not new to the Sunnyvale company, which was founded in 1997 and purchased by defense contracting giant Boeing in 2010. The company first came to notoriety in 2005, when it was found to be the processing brain behind the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping of the internet inside an AT&T facility in San Francisco.
Last year, the company announced it was marketing a new product called Hone, which could connect multiple online profiles to a single person, helping governments track down criminals and subversives.
In an interview with PBS’s Frontline, a Narus marketing executive lauded the power of the equipment to “peer into pipes” but stammered nervously that he had no idea if their equipment was being used in that room.
Narus isn’t the first company to come under scrutiny for selling electronic monitoring equipment to repressive regimes. German technology giant Siemens AG and Nokia sold mobile phone and internet monitoring equipment to Iran in 2008, prompting a boycott and backpedalling by the companies.
However, nearly all carrier-grade phone and internet equipment now ships with so-called “intercept capability,” thanks to a 1996 U.S. law called CALEA which mandated that all U.S. phone networks be capable of very sophisticated wiretapping.
In 2002, the FCC — at the behest of the FBI — extended those wiretapping requirements to the internet, prompting major manufacturers to build those capabilities into their equipment as defaults.
These federal requirements also benefited Narus, whose powerful monitoring equipment is used by many of the nation’s telecoms to provide the legally required wiretapping systems needed to comply with U.S. government wiretapping orders.
Activists can often evade the worst of such surveillance using encrypted communication tools, but even these are now under assault by the FBI, which is seeking to have Congress require that encryption technology have backdoors for government surveillance.
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