Late last year, as the regime of Bashar Assad was continuing its murderous rampage against the people of Syria, the governments of Iran and Russia offered their diplomatic support. But Bashar also received significant practical assistance from a much more unlikely ally: an Italian surveillance firm by the name of Area SpA. Throughout all of 2011, employees of that company were being flown to Damascus to direct Syrian intelligence officers in the installation of a computer system that would allow the Syrian government to scan and catalog virtually every e-mail that flows through the country. As the violence escalated, so did the regime’s insistence that the project be completed. It was a “race against time to set up monitoring centers,” says Trevor Timm, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who recently provided a report to the EU parliament on the subject—a race that Area SpA showed few qualms about participating in.
Indeed, the Italian company has plenty of competition from other Western firms—including Finfisher, Trovicor, and Blue Coat Systems, to name just a few—that are in the same line of work. The provision of high-tech surveillance equipment is a burgeoning business for technology companies in Europe and the United States—currently worth an estimated $5 billion per year and growing 20 percent annually—due in large part to the increased demand from authoritarian regimes across the Middle East and Asia. “They’re profiteering off people’s lives,” Timm says. But the companies have shown little inclination to voluntarily curtail the trade. That’s why a growing number of activists are now trying to increase the pressure on them.
Public shaming has been one of their primary methods. Timm’s report to the EU was unreservedly damning. And then there is Eric King, human rights advisor to Privacy International, who had been investigating the use of surveillance technology by authoritarian regimes for over a year—and who subsequently minced no words when it came to addressing those who furnished the wares, saying that Western companies were going "out of their way" to aid authoritarian regimes.
When I recently spoke with him by telephone, King told me of people in post-revolutionary Libya and Egypt who had been sending him pictures of technology that had been acquired by their respective deposed regimes. “There’s barely a week that goes by without an activist sending me a photo of something and saying, ‘What is this and can it spy on me?’,” he says. “And it’s British-made satellite phone surveillance technology.”
The increased attention that activists like Timm and King—together with investigative reports in recent months by reporters at Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal—have brought to the issue has already convinced a few companies to change course. Area SpA, for example, has pulled out of its Syrian operations due to protest and public outcry. But many more firms still maintain an attitude of “plausible deniability”—as Timm terms it—wherein they claim they had no idea their technology would be used for nefarious purposes. This defense is made possible because the technology itself is not illegal, and is also used by democratic governments to target legitimate cybercrime.
Nick Robins-Early is an intern at The New Republic.
The above article was published in tnr.com on March 15th, 2012.