The role of Western companies helping repressive regimes monitoring their citizens is only getting worse, as I document in my book The Blogging Revolution.
This week the Wall Street Journal secured a cracking exclusive about Libya and the fine, upstanding people helping Gaddafi remain thuggish:
On the ground floor of a six-story building here, agents working for Moammar Gadhafi sat in an open room, spying on emails and chat messages with the help of technology Libya acquired from the West.
The recently abandoned room is lined with posters and English-language training manuals stamped with the name Amesys, a unit of French technology firm Bull SA, which installed the monitoring center. A warning by the door bears the Amesys logo. The sign reads: “Help keep our classified business secret. Don’t discuss classified information out of the HQ.”
The room, explored Monday by The Wall Street Journal, provides clear new evidence of foreign companies’ cooperation in the repression of Libyans under Col. Gadhafi’s almost 42-year rule. The surveillance files found here include emails written as recently as February, after the Libyan uprising had begun.
One file, logged on Feb. 26, includes a 16-minute Yahoo chat between a man and a young woman. He sometimes flirts, declaring that her soul is meant for him, but also worries that his opposition to Col. Gadhafi has made him a target.
“I’m wanted,” he says. “The Gadhafi forces … are writing lists of names.” He says he’s going into hiding and will call her from a new phone number—and urges her to keep his plans secret.
“Don’t forget me,” she says.
This kind of spying became a top priority for Libya as the region’s Arab Spring revolutions blossomed in recent months. Earlier this year, Libyan officials held talks with Amesys and several other companies including Boeing Co.’s Narus, a maker of high-tech Internet traffic-monitoring products, as they looked to add sophisticated Internet-filtering capabilities to Libya’s existing monitoring operation, people familiar with the matter said.
Libya sought advanced tools to control the encrypted online-phone service Skype, censor YouTube videos and block Libyans from disguising their online activities by using “proxy” servers, according to documents reviewed by the Journal and people familiar with the matter. Libya’s civil war stalled the talks.
“Narus does not comment on potential business ventures,” a Narus spokeswoman said in a statement. “There have been no sales or deployments of Narus technology in Libya.” A Bull official declined to comment.
The sale of technology used to intercept communications is generally permissible by law, although manufacturers in some countries, including the U.S., must first obtain special approval to export high-tech interception devices.
Libya is one of several Middle Eastern and North African states to use sophisticated technologies acquired abroad to crack down on dissidents. Tech firms from the U.S., Canada, Europe, China and elsewhere have, in the pursuit of profits, helped regimes block websites, intercept emails and eavesdrop on conversations.
The Tripoli Internet monitoring center was a major part of a broad surveillance apparatus built by Col. Gadhafi to keep tabs on his enemies. Amesys in 2009 equipped the center with “deep packet inspection” technology, one of the most intrusive techniques for snooping on people’s online activities, according to people familiar with the matter.
Members of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s family were reported Monday to have arrived in Algeria, a neighbor Libyan rebels have accused of supporting the ousted regime. Jeff Grocott has details on The News Hub.
Chinese telecom company ZTE Corp. also provided technology for Libya’s monitoring operation, people familiar with the matter said. Amesys and ZTE had deals with different arms of Col. Gadhafi’s security service, the people said. A ZTE spokeswoman declined to comment.