Sunday, March 11, 2012

Watching Over You

When The Wall Street Journal reporter Margaret Coker visited the Libyan government’s surveillance centre in Tripoli after the city’s fall, she saw that the authorities had been monitoring everything: the internet, mobile phones, satellite phone and internet connections. Some files included emails and online conversations between Gaddafi’s opponents. Notices on the walls revealed that the company which had installed the equipment was Amesys, a subsidiary of French firm Bull (1). The French satirical weekly Le Canard EnchainĂ© later reported that France’s military intelligence directorate had been solicited to help train Libya’s internal spies (2)
In Syria, US equipment helps Bashar al-Assad’s regime censor the internet, and retrieve logins and passwords to access people’s emails or Facebook and Twitter pages. This tool is particularly useful for tracking the communications of opponents with internal or foreign connections.
    The technology is innocuously named “deep packet inspection” (DPI). When someone sends an email, a series of servers relays it to its destination. Each server sends the message on to the next, looking only at the recipient’s address, and not at the contents. An expert on internet law, Jonathan Zittrain, explained: “It’s a bit like being at a party with polite friends. If you’re too far from the bar, or there are too many people in the way, you ask the person next to you to get you a beer. They ask the person next to them, who is a bit closer to the bar, and so on. Eventually your order reaches the bar and your beer arrives via the same route back. Since everyone is polite, no one will have drunk your beer along the way.”
    But DPI is less polite. How would you feel if the person next to you analysed your order, and started lecturing you about it? Or if they tampered with your drink, adding water or something stronger? This is exactly what DPI technology can do: it allows people to read the content of internet traffic, modify it, and even send it to someone else.
    Amesys is not alone in this market. US press agency Bloomberg recently reported that another French company, Qosmos, had provided DPI technology to a consortium equipping Syria to the same standard as Gaddafi’s Libya (3). DPI is also at the heart of China’s firewall, which allows the government to censor internet traffic and spy on its citizens.
    The recent Wikileaks publication of numerous internal documents from these companies shows that monitoring communication networks is “a secret new industry spanning 25 countries … In traditional spy stories, intelligence agencies like MI5 bug the phone of one or two people of interest. In the last 10 years systems of indiscriminate, mass surveillance have become the norm” (4). A little earlier The Wall Street Journal had published more than 200 marketing documents from 36 companies offering the US anti-terrorist agency various surveillance and computer hacking tools (5)...

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