Wired for Repression
Surveillance Tech & Repressive Regimes
Bloomberg's series "Wired for Repression" reveals how Western companies provide surveillance systems to authoritarian countries that claim some of the world's worst human rights records including Iran, Syria, Bahrain and Tunisia. The newest artillery for repressive regimes, the gear allows authorities to intercept their citizens' e-mails and text messages, monitor Internet activity and locate political targets through cell phone technology. Brandishing transcripts of personal communications and records of whereabouts, officials now routinely use such information to confront, arrest and torture dissidents.
In authoritarian countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Western surveillance tools have empowered repression, allowing leaders to intercept e-mails and text messages, and monitor the whereabouts of citizens through their cell phones.
As unrest in Syria erupted into public demonstrations and a bloody crackdown that has claimed over 6,000 lives in the last year, the regime of Bashar al-Assad sought to neutralize one of the most potent tools in the protesters’ arsenal: text messages sent via mobile phones.
The clandestine arrangement worked smoothly for years. The Israeli company shipped its Internet-monitoring equipment to a distributor in Denmark. Once there, workers stripped away the packaging and removed the labels.
Dec. 22 (Bloomberg) -- The intelligence operative sits in a leather club chair, laptop open, one floor below the Hilton Kuala Lumpur’s convention rooms, scanning the airwaves for spies. In the salons above him, merchants of electronic interception demonstrate their gear to government agents who have descended on the Malaysian capital in early December for the Wiretapper’s Ball, as this surveillance industry trade show is called.
In Tunisia, Big Brother goes by an alias: Ammar 404. A play on the “Error 404” message for blocked websites, Tunisian bloggers dreamed him up as a fictional front man for the sprawling surveillance state of former ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Nov. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ) equipment worth more than $500,000 has been installed in computer rooms in Syria, underpinning a surveillance system being built to monitor e-mails and Internet use, according to documents from the deal and a person familiar with the installation.
Nov. 4 (Bloomberg) -- As Syria’s crackdown on protests has claimed more than 3,000 lives since March, Italian technicians in telecom offices from Damascus to Aleppo have been busy equipping President Bashar al-Assad’s regime with the power to intercept, scan and catalog virtually every e-mail that flows through the country.
Oct. 30 (Bloomberg) -- The Iranian officers who knocked out Saeid Pourheydar’s four front teeth also enlightened the opposition journalist. Held in Evin Prison for weeks following his arrest early last year for protesting, he says, he learned that he was not only fighting the regime, but also companies that armed Tehran with technology to monitor dissidents like him.
Aug. 23 (Bloomberg) -- The interrogation of Abdul Ghani Al Khanjar followed a pattern. First, Bahraini jailers armed with stiff rubber hoses beat the 39-year-old school administrator and human rights activist in a windowless room two stories below ground in the Persian Gulf kingdom’s National Security Apparatus building.
U.S. regulators are investigating how a multi-million-dollar storage system from NetApp Inc. came to underpin a sweeping Internet-surveillance system being built last year for the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Apr. 23 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama authorized sanctions against individuals and entities that provide information technology that aid regimes in cracking down on dissidents. The executive order from the president is aimed at thwarting the governments of Syria and Iran in particular for their “malign use of technology” to track, monitor and disrupt anti government protesters.
Jan. 19 (Bloomberg) -- The European Union’s ban on exports of surveillance technology to Syria includes equipment that can peer into the contents of e-mail or intercept telephone text messages, according to regulations published today.
Nov. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Area SpA, the Italian company that had been building an Internet surveillance system in Syria, is exiting the project, according to the newspaper la Repubblica, which cited a lawyer for the firm.
Nov. 10 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. lawmakers are calling for an investigation into NetApp Inc. (NTAP)’s role in an Internet- surveillance system that has been under construction in Syria throughout this year’s political crackdown.
The U.S. Commerce Department banned a United Arab Emirates company from receiving items under the jurisdiction of U.S. export controls after it was found to have shipped Internet filtering devices to Syria.
The European Union will curb the export of telephone- and data-interception technology to nations that use the tools to violate human rights, following reports that Western surveillance gear was used to track dissidents in Middle East crackdowns.