Exporting the digital yoke of repression

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 September, 2011, 12:00am


Political repression and surveillance the world over have gone digital. That is one of the lesser known but no less important lessons of the 'Arab spring'.

China's so-called Great Firewall internet censorship and its strong-arm tactics against foreign hi-tech companies to give up private customer data have justifiably been criticised.

But let's not forget that many Western companies, with tacit approval from democratic governments, have been supplying advanced surveillance technology to some of the world's worst dictators and tyrants.

The New York Times last week exposed extensive contacts between the CIA and Muammar Gaddafi's security service. But hi-tech companies from France, South Africa and other democratic countries had also been supplying the colonel with the technology to monitor e-mail, text messages and online communications.

Boeing subsidiary Narus, which supplied spying gear to Saudi Arabia and Egypt under Hosni Mubarak, dropped plans to supply Gaddafi only after the rebellion gained traction.

Germany's Siemens built the system used by authorities in Bahrain to retrieve the text messages of activists who were caught and later released. Gamma International, in Britain, is developing the capability to eavesdrop on Skype users. An early version of the technology made its way to Mubarak's security forces. The list goes on.

Most of these technologies have been developed to meet the domestic surveillance needs of Western governments and security agencies. But just as such surveillance threatens democratic values at home, it is being exported around the world to enable ever more efficient repression online.

George Orwell didn't know how right he would turn out to be.