(www.fpif.org) Springtime in the Arab world is looking bleaker now that despots in Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen and reactionary elements in Egypt have gained an upper hand against the pro-democracy protesters who have inspired the world. And the Internet, hailed sometimes in excess as a potent tool for these movements, has itself come under increasing fire from these and other autocratic states seeking to crush popular dissent.
In Libya, the Gaddafi regime plunged the nation into digital darkness during the first week of March, where it has remained. In Bahrain, the kingdom reacted swiftly to pro-democracy demonstrations by filtering sites that let locals share cell phone videos, blocking YouTube pages containing videos of street protests, and taking down a large Facebook group that called for more demonstrations. And even in Egypt, despite the departure of Mubarak, the interim military authority has taken a harsh stand against pro-democracy activists, while trying to stop the sharing of looted state security files, which reveal the extent to which the government uses the Web to spy on Egyptians.
These accounts of Internet abuse have not gone unnoticed. Less known, however, is the degree to which U.S. and European companies have enabled the crackdown.
Egypt’s Internet crackdown appears to have been aided by Narus, a Boeing-owned surveillance technology provider that sold Telecom Egypt “real-time traffic intelligence” software that filters online communications and tracks them to their source.
Israeli security experts founded Narus to create and sell mass surveillance systems for governments and large corporate clients. It is known for creating NarusInsight, a supercomputer system that is allegedly being used by the National Security Agency and other entities to provide a “full network view” of suspected Internet communications as they happen.
Narus has also provided surveillance technology to Libya, according to James Bamford, author of 2008’s The Shadow Factory. In 2005, the company struck a multimillion-dollar agreement with Giza Systems of Egypt to license Narus’ Web-sleuthing products throughout the Middle East. Giza Systems services the Libyan network.
British-owned Vodafone shut down its Egypt-based cellphone network following a request from the Mubarak regime and then restored it only to send pro-Mubarak propaganda to text-messaging customers across the country. When digital rights groups like AccessNow.org protested Vodafone’s actions, the company stated that it could do nothing to stop those texts, because it was forced to abide by the country’s emergency laws.
Bahrain reportedly filtered and blocked websites using “SmartFilter” software supplied by the U.S. company McAfee, which Intel acquired late last year. Despite widespread reports of its use, company executives claim that they have “no control over, or visibility into how an organization implements its own filtering policy.”
Cisco Systems, a leading manufacturer of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) systems , a content-filtering technology that allows network managers to inspect, track, and target content from users of the Internet and mobile phones, is a major partner in Bahrain. In 2009, the San Jose, California-based company joined with the kingdom to open an Internet Data Center in Bahrain’s capital “as an essential component in the drive to improve government services to the populace.”
The extent to which Cisco’s own DPI products are part of this deal remains to be seen. Executives at Cisco would not return our requests for comment on the nature of its involvement in Bahrain.
Nokia and Siemens also support Libya’s cell phone network. A joint venture between these two firms was heavily criticized in 2009 for reportedly assisting the Iranian regime’s crackdown against cyber-dissidents. It’s difficult to know whether they assisted the Libyan government, since Nokia Siemens’ PR didn’t return our call, either.