In occasion of the World Day Against Cyber Censorship, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) has released its annual report on Internet Freedom. It pays special attention to digital surveillance, the tracking of the online activities of single citizens, which is becoming an increasingly common activity for governments all over the world. With the use of technology, police can track and tap the online communication of dissidents, bloggers and journalists and consequently arrest them. The Internet has thus become one of the new battlegrounds for the defense of human and fundamental rights, and according to Reporters Without Borders, 180 netizens are currently in jail as a result of Internet Surveillance. Digital Surveillance is a big international business: in 2011 WikiLeaks’ “Spy File” scoop revealed how this secret and non-transparent sector has grown since 2001, while RWB reports that the market is currently worth five billion dollars. But which are the worst countries for Internet freedom and those where digital surveillance is more common? RWB has listed Syria, China, Iran, Bahrain and Vietnam as the five “enemies” of the Internet, where the Web is under control and used as a trap for dissidents who are constantly under the threat of being tracked, identified and persecuted for their online activities.
Bahrain is a country with a fairly good connection speed and a very high Internet penetration rate (77 percent), but according to the report, “the royal family is represented in all areas of Internet management and has sophisticated tools at its disposal for spying on its subjects.” The practice of sending spy malwares (malicious software) via email and capturing IP addresses are online surveillance methods very frequently used against citizens.
In Vietnam, websites are easily shut down via DNS attacks or by direct requests from the government to Internet providers who very rarely refuse their demands. According to Freedom House, “the government monitors conversations and tracks the calls of citizens who are targeted as ‘activists’ or ‘reactionaries’.”
Iran has an even more sophisticated strategy to keep the Internet under control with “Halal Internet”, the national network which will literally cut the nation off from the proper Internet. The construction of this “parallel Internet” will give the government the chance to control almost all the online activities of Iranian citizens, as all Iranian websites will be hosted by Iranian servers, and as RWB says, “the government plans to reduce the international Internet’s connection speed (which is already limited to 128Kb/s) and to increase the cost of subscribing to it, in order to make subscribing to the faster national Internet much more attractive.”
China’s Great Firewall (officially named “Golden shield project”) is probably the most famous and effective weapon of digital surveillance in the world, allowing access to foreign websites to be filtered. In China, IP addresses and domains can easily be blocked, and Deep Packet Inspection access allows websites to be blocked based on “keyword detection”, RWB says. The Great Firewall has been “plugged in” since November 2012, when the Chinese Communist Party enforced its activities by banning VPN (Virtual Private Network) services provided by foreign companies – which were previously used by Chinese Internet users to avoid tracking. According to RWB, at least five government departments are working on Internet Surveillance, resulting in 30 journalists and 69 netizens being convicted and held in Chinese jails.
Internet in Syria, on the other hand, is controlled by two different agencies, the Syrian Computer Society (SCS) and the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE), both of which are founded by Bashar Al-Assad. According to a 1999 document obtained by RWB, Syria is also trying to create a national network. In Syria, the surveillance and tracking of online activities is constantly used, with phishing tactics among the most common. Alongside this, it’s important to remember that the Syrian government succeeded in literally turn off the Internet all over the country to avoid external connection. Surprisingly, countries such as Cuba, North Korea, Burma and Uzbekistan are not listed in the 2013 report after being mentioned in 2012’s.
For its 2013 report, RWB went more in detail giving evidence against the “Enemies of the Internet”, investigating the corporate actors, providing a “Corporate Enemies” ranking with the five most-active companies selling censorship and surveillance products to dictatorial governments. The “digital era mercenaries” listed in the report are U.K.’s Gamma Group, Germany’s Trovicor, Italy’s HackingTeam, France’s Amesys, and the American Blue Coat Systems. According to RBW:
“Trovicor’s surveillance and interception products have enabled Bahrain’s royal family to spy on news providers and arrest them. In Syria, Deep Packet Inspection products developed by Blue Coat made it possible for the regime to spy on dissidents and netizens throughout the country, and to arrest and torture them. Eagle products supplied by Amesys were discovered in the offices of Muammar Gaddafi’s secret police. Malware designed by Hacking Team and Gamma has been used by governments to capture the passwords of journalists and netizens.”
Back in 2012 WikiLeaks gave evidence on how Selex Elsag (a company controlled by the Italian Finemeccanica group) provided the Syrian government with a telecommunication system and guaranteed its maintenance even during the sharpest moments of protests in the country. The number of companies involved in Internet Surveillance probably exceeds those mentioned in the RBW report. The European Union recently endorsed Marietje Schaake’s first Digital Freedom Strategy in Foreign Policy where a ban on selling surveillance technology to dictatorial countries is wished for. While the focus here has been the defense of human rights online, it is also pertinent to remember it is constantly challenged in democratic countries as well.
Photo credits: RobH (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons