The interrogation of Abdul Ghani Al Khanjar followed a pattern. First, Bahraini jailers took the 39-year-old school administrator and human rights activist in a windowless room two stories below ground in the Gulf kingdom’s National Security Apparatus building. Then, they dragged him upstairs for questioning by a uniformed officer armed with another kind of weapon: transcripts of his text messages and details from personal mobile phone conversations, he says.
“It was amazing,” he says of the messages they obtained. “How did they know about these?”
The answer: computers loaded with Western-made surveillance software generated the transcripts wielded in the interrogations described by Al Khanjar and scores of other detainees whose similar treatment was tracked by rights activists.
The spy gear in Bahrain was sold by Siemens AG (SIE), and maintained by Nokia Siemens Networks and NSN’s divested unit, Trovicor GmbH, according to two people whose positions at the companies gave them direct knowledge of the installations. Both requested anonymity because they have signed nondisclosure agreements. The sale and maintenance contracts were also confirmed by Ben Roome, a Nokia Siemens spokesman based in Farnborough, England.
The only way officers could have obtained messages was through the interception program, says Ahmed Aldoseri, director of information and communications technologies at Bahrain’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. While he won’t disclose details about the program, he says, “If they have a transcript of an SMS message, it’s because the security organ was monitoring the user at their monitoring center.”
The use of the system for interrogation in Bahrain illustrates how Western-produced surveillance technology sold to one authoritarian government became an investigative tool of choice to gather information about political dissidents – and silence them.
Companies are free to sell such equipment almost anywhere. For the most part, the US and European countries lack export controls to deter the use of such systems for repression.
“The technology is becoming very sophisticated, and the only thing limiting it is how deeply governments want to snoop into lives,” says Rob Faris, research director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Surveillance is typically a state secret, and we only get bits and pieces that leak out.”
Some industry insiders now say their own products have become dangerous in the hands of regimes where law enforcement crosses the line to repression.
The images of the Arab spring crackdowns earlier this year unnerved Nikhil Gyamlani, who as a consultant for Trovicor and Nokia Siemens had developed monitoring systems and sold them to some of the countries.
The authorities jammed or restricted communications to stymie gatherings and knew where to send riot police before a protest could even start, according to eyewitness reports.
For that to happen, government officials had to have some means of figuring out where to go or whom to target to nip protests in the bud, Gyamlani, 34, says.
“There’s very little chance a government is smart enough without this technology,” he says while smoking Marlboros on the patio of a pasta restaurant in Munich. Gyamlani says nondisclosure agreements with his former employers prohibit him from revealing details about specific countries he worked with.
At least 30 people have been killed so far in this year’s uprising in Bahrain, a US ally situated between Qatar and Saudi Arabia that is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Security forces were accused of beating paramedics, doctors and nurses who treated the wounded, and prosecutors have charged dozens of medical workers with crimes such as “incitement against the regime,” according to Human Rights Watch.
In June, the US put Bahrain on its list of human rights violators.
Across the Middle East in recent years, sales teams at Siemens, Nokia Siemens, Munich-based Trovicor and other companies have worked their connections among spy masters, police chiefs and military officers to provide country after country with monitoring gear, industry executives say. Their story is a window into a secretive world of surveillance businesses that is transforming the political and social fabric of countries from North Africa to the Gulf.
Monitoring centers, as the systems are called, are sold around the globe by these companies and their competitors, such as Israel-based Nice Systems Ltd. (NICE), and Verint Systems Inc. (VRNT), headquartered in Melville, New York. They form the heart of so- called lawful interception surveillance systems. The equipment is marketed largely to law enforcement agencies tracking terrorists and other criminals.
The toolbox allows more than the interception of phone calls, emails, text messages and Voice Over Internet Protocol calls such as those made using Skype. Some products can also secretly activate laptop webcams or microphones on mobile devices. They can change the contents of written communications in mid-transmission, use voice recognition to scan phone networks, and pinpoint people’s locations through their mobile phones. The monitoring systems can scan communications for key words or recognize voices and then feed the data and recordings to operators at government agencies.
Monitoring technology is among the newest artillery in an unfolding digital arms race, says Marietje Schaake, a European Parliament member who tracks abuses of information and communications technology. “We have to acknowledge that certain software products now are actually as effective as weapons,” she says.
Uprisings from Tunisia to Bahrain have drawn strength from technologies such as social-networking sites and mobile-phone videos. Yet, the flip side of the technology that played a part in this year’s “Facebook revolutions” may be far more forceful.
Rulers fought back, exploiting their citizens’ digital connections with increasingly intrusive tools.
They’ve tapped a market that’s worth more than $3bn a year, according to Jerry Lucas, president of McLean, Virginia- based TeleStrategies Inc, organizer of the ISS World trade shows for intelligence and lawful interception businesses. He derives that estimate by applying per-employee revenue figures from publicly traded Verint’s lawful intercept business across the mostly privately held industry.
In the hands of autocrats, the surveillance gear is providing unprecedented power to monitor and crush dissent – a phenomenon that Ben Wagner of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, calls “push-button autocracy.”
The technology has become pervasive. By the end of 2007, the Nokia Siemens Intelligence Solutions unit had more than 90 systems installed in 60 countries, according to company brochures.
Besides Bahrain, several other Middle Eastern nations that cracked down on uprisings this year -including Egypt, Syria and Yemen – also purchased monitoring centers from the chain of businesses now known as Trovicor. Trovicor equipment plays a surveillance role in at least 12 Middle Eastern and North African nations, according to the two people familiar with the installations.
Trovicor’s precursor, which started in 1993 as the voice- and data-recording unit of Siemens, in 2007 became part of Nokia Siemens Networks, the world’s second biggest maker of wireless communications equipment. NSN, a 50-50 joint venture with Espoo, Finland-based Nokia Oyj (NOK1V), sold the unit, known as Intelligence Solutions, in March 2009. The new owners, Guernsey-based Perusa Partners Fund 1 LP, renamed the business Trovicor, coined from the Latin and Esperanto words for find and heart, according to the company’s website.
“We are very aware that communications technology can be used for good and ill,” NSN spokesman Roome says. The elevated risk of human rights abuses was a major reason for NSN’s exiting the monitoring-center business, and the company has since established a human rights policy and due diligence program, he says.
“Ultimately people who use this technology to infringe human rights are responsible for their actions,” he says.
Asked whether Trovicor or its predecessors sold monitoring centers to Middle Eastern nations that have cracked down on uprisings this year, Roome says the company can’t talk about specific countries. NSN retained little documentation on the business after divesting it and has no data about the scope of its monitoring-center sales in the Mideast, he says.
Wolfram Trost, a spokesman for Munich-based Siemens, Europe’s largest engineering company, says he can’t comment because all documentation from the intelligence solutions unit had been transferred to Nokia Siemens.
Birgitt Fischer-Harrow, Trovicor’s head of marketing communications, said Trovicor’s contracts prevent it from disclosing its customers or the countries where it does business. She declined to comment further.
Trovicor’s owners only invest in ethical businesses, says Christian Hollenberg, a founder of Munich-based Perusa GmbH, the adviser to the Perusa investment fund. He includes in that category Trovicor, which the fund owns in its entirety.
“It’s a legal business, and it’s part of every communications network in the civilized world,” he says.
Bahrain is confronting alleged human rights violations through the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, a panel established in June by royal decree to probe the recent violence, says government spokesman Abdul-Aziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, the international counselor at Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority. Since July 24, the commission has recorded 140 allegations of physical abuse and torture, according to an August 10 statement on its website.
“The first things we’re hearing is there wasn’t systematic abuse or torture, but there were abuses by rogue individuals within the security apparatus,” the government spokesman says. He says he isn’t in a position to comment on surveillance equipment or a specific interrogation.
Most countries, including the US and European Union member states, employ interception technology in their telecommunications and data systems. A valuable tool for law enforcement, monitoring technology typically is accompanied by strict privacy protections and meets standards established by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute and similar organizations. After 9/11, as part of the war on terror, the administration of President George W. Bush secretly – and controversially – authorized the National Security Agency to monitor communications to and from the US
The Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi and other human rights activists have blamed Nokia Siemens for aiding government repression. In 2009, the company disclosed that it sold a monitoring center to Iran, prompting hearings in the European Parliament, proposals for tighter restrictions on US trade with Iran, and an international “No to Nokia” boycott campaign.
While there have been credible reports the gear may have been used to crack down on Iranian dissidents, those claims have never been substantiated, NSN spokesman Roome says.
In Bahrain, officials routinely use surveillance in the arrest and torture of political opponents, according to Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. He says he has evidence of this from former detainees, including Al Khanjar, and their lawyers and family members.
During the recent crackdown, Rajab says, monitoring was pervasive.
“Everyone was interrogated based on telephone calls that were checked — and not only us, the activists,” he says. “Even our children, our wives, our sisters are being monitored.”
At Bahrain’s telecommunications regulator, Aldoseri says monitoring technology is used only by order of legal authorities such as judges and prosecutors. A former fighter pilot, Aldoseri, 33, led the drafting of Bahrain’s 2009 regulations for lawful interception.
Available online, the regulations make clear that every phone and Internet operator must provide the state with the ability to monitor communications. Phone companies also must track the location of phones within a 164ft radius, the rules say.
“You have the risk of abuse, so we made it as public as possible,” Aldoseri says.
For Bahraini security agents, monitoring centers are essential for gathering and printing text messages and other transmissions, Aldoseri says.
He says it’s impossible to know which contractor’s monitoring center processed a particular text message transcript. He says he’s barred from identifying vendors.
“I can neither confirm nor deny that Trovicor is there,” he says. “It could be their monitoring center or it could be someone else.”
During the Arab spring, it was easy to spot the company’s fingerprints, says Gyamlani. Tuning in to Germany’s N24 news channel at his home in Munich, he immediately suspected that governments were abusing systems he’d installed.
Failed uprisings stood out to him because of the way the authorities quashed unrest before it spread, says Gyamlani, a native of India who moved to Germany 12 years ago to study and work.
Once the equipment is installed, Gyamlani says, there is no way to shut it down long distance. He’s forming a new company, GlassCube, that he says will feature remote kill switches as well as other technology and contract requirements that would enable companies to curb such abuses from afar.
“With the power comes a big responsibility; this is a business where people can get killed,” he says.
Visitors to Trovicor’s headquarters on the third floor of a glass office building in Munich are greeted by a life-size statue of the company’s mascot – a stalking panther- by the reception desk. The mascot is a carryover from the Nokia Siemens unit, as were most of the company’s roughly 170 workers, current and former employees say.
Former and current Trovicor and Nokia Siemens employees interviewed declined to be identified by name when discussing company business in specific countries. Clients contacted declined to speak on the record about specific contracts.
Al Khanjar, the Bahraini activist interrogated about his text messages, is in hiding today. He says he’s reluctant to communicate by mobile phone and takes calls using Skype on a computer with software that disguises its location. The Internet connection is his only way of communicating with his wife and 9-year-old son.
Al Khanjar says the first of his communications used in the interrogations was intercepted in June 2009. At that time, the Nokia Siemens family of related companies was the only known supplier and maintainer of monitoring centers to Bahrain, the two people familiar with the installations say. The clusters of computers required constant upgrades by the companies, they say.
Schaake, 32, who represents the Netherlands in the European Parliament, says companies should be barred from exporting such equipment to countries with poor human rights records. US and EU export laws and UN sanctions control just a narrow slice of technology such as weapons systems or data encryption. International embargoes that cover a broader range of equipment target only a small circle of the worst actors, such as Myanmar and North Korea.
Transparency and Accountability
“It is time for more pressure, for more transparency and accountability when it comes to these products and services,” Schaake says. As a first step, Schaake says surveillance systems involving information and communications technology should join military items such as missile parts on lists of restricted exports.
Schaake helped to sponsor a parliamentary resolution in February 2010 that called for the EU’s executive body, the European Commission, to ban exports of such technology to regimes that could abuse it. The commission hasn’t implemented the nonbinding resolution.
The US Congress passed a law in 2010 barring federal contracts with any businesses that sold monitoring gear to Iran. An investigation ordered by Congress and completed in June by the Government Accountability Office was unable to identify any companies supplying the technology to Iran, partly because the business is so secretive, the agency reported.
Al Khanjar says lightly regulated sales of lawful interception technology expose an industry lacking appropriate oversight.
“The United Nations should put pressure on those companies that supply equipment to these tyrant regimes,” he says.
Bahraini government regulator Aldoseri says the companies are all too happy to sell the equipment regardless of what happens once it’s installed.
“If you provide someone with a knife, you expect them to use it responsibly,” he says. That’s not necessarily the case with surveillance companies, he says.
“They don’t ask any of the operators or security organs what happens after. They provide equipment to filter and monitor and they don’t care about due process.”