“It’s a kind of cat and mouse game,” says European Parliament member Marietje Schaake, who the Wall Street Journal describes as Europe’s ‘most wired politician.’ Schaake: “We have to keep updating the technology used by human rights defenders so they can avoid tracking and tracing surveillance
Western governments are investing millions to keep human rights activists online in countries like Syria, Iran and China. They’re giving citizen journalists the technology to skirt the surveillance and disruption of data traffic by repressive regimes. But despite this aid, Europe and the US are accused of hypocrisy on internet freedom.
The latest moves by Iran illustrate why bloggers there need Western help. The government has ordered cybercafes to log exhaustive details on the identity and internet use of all customers. According to reformist newspaper Roozegar, Tehran may soon introduce its own, national version of the internet and permanently block Iranians’ access to the global web. Ahead of parliamentary elections in March, the government wants to ensure Iran won’t see the next Facebook revolution.
To make sure pro-democracy bloggers there can keep informing each other and the outside world, the West has been sending aid. Not in the shape of money, but technology: tailor-made equipment and software that ensures internet access and protection from spyware. It goes by names like ‘The Shadow Internet’ and ‘Internet in a Suitcase.’
Impressed by social media’s role in the Arab Spring, both the US and Europe are smuggling this technology across hostile borders and into the hands of pro-democracy activists. ”Our goal is to expand the space for free speech and to strengthen democratic society,” says Monique Doppert of HIVOS, a Dutch development aid group.
Last year HIVOS distributed 5,000 copies of Security-in-a-Box, a software package that helps people hide their communication activity from the authorities. It contains tips on issues like safe encryption of data and creating strong passwords. “You can even fit the software on a USB stick. That’s all you need.”
Copies have also been distributed in Syria. “We don’t know how many are in circulation there. They can also download the software from the internet and we have no way of tracing who’s using it,” says Doppert. And there lies a problem. It can fall into the wrong hands.
The sophistication of aid technology for bloggers is being matched step-for-step by increasingly cyberwise state security apparatuses, Doppert acknowledges. “The regimes are learning from the technology we send. And from each other.” She believes Iran might even be helping Syria ramp up its cyber security.
Tracking and tracing
“It’s a kind of cat and mouse game,” says European Parliament member Marietje Schaake, who the Wall Street Journal describes as Europe’s ‘most wired politician.’ Schaake: “We have to keep updating the technology used by human rights defenders so they can avoid tracking and tracing surveillance. ”
She says dictatorships have shown a chilling ability to catch on to the latest advances. “I talked to someone who was imprisoned in Iran, who said half of those in prison with him were confronted with transcripts of their text messages, phone calls and emails. Skype was long thought 100% secure until Egyptian activists found transcripts of their own Skype conversations when they raided a police office in Cairo.”
This is hardly surprising. Repressive regimes have been buying surveillance technology from the West with great enthusiasm in recent years. Nokia Siemens Networks sold a mobile network to Iran prior to the 2009 crackdown, Schaake points out.
Schaake also mentions the Italian company Area Spa, which was building a monitoring centre to centralise all internet and mobile traffic in Syria and actually had Italian technicians on the ground. “It’s not even a matter of naming one or two companies, this is quite a common practice.” Western sales of surveillance systems to countries like Syria dwarf the amount of aid given to pro-democracy supporters.
The spyware industry originally supplied only Western governments and companies but now enjoys €4 billion in sales worldwide. Only recently have Western politicians started calling for the trade in surveillance software to be regulated, because dictators are buying the technology too.
A hypocritical stance, says Rop Gonggrijp, a Dutch hacker who in 2010 became the subject of US government scrutiny for helping Wikileaks release classified video footage of a Baghdad airstrike.
“Western governments that paid for the development of repressive technology are now complaining that dictators are using it. Western countries love it when censorship is subverted in states run by adversaries, but they’re far less concerned with freedom of expression in their own societies.”
“Look at SOPA, the anti-piracy legislation being considered in the US Congress. It’s censorship. Western governments would do more for internet freedom if they didn’t speak with a forked tongue. A clear message is better than security in a box. If you want to be a beacon of freedom, put your money where your mouth is.”
Last December, the EU freed up €125 million to support internet freedom in countries like China, Myanmar, Syria and Iran. The focus was largely on helping citizen journalists.