Amid the cheerleading over recent events in the Middle East, it’s easy to forget the more repressive uses of technology. In addition to the rosy narrative celebrating how Facebook and Twitter have enabled freedom movements around the world, we need to confront a more sinister tale: how greedy companies, fostered by Western governments for domestic surveillance needs, have helped suppress them.
Libya is only the latest place where Western surveillance technology has turned up. Human rights activists arrested and later released in Bahrain report being presented with transcripts of their own text messages — a capacity their government acquired through equipment from Siemens, the German industrial giant, and maintained by Nokia Siemens Networks, based in Finland, and Trovicor, another German company.
Earlier this year, after storming the secret police headquarters, Egyptian activists discovered that the Mubarak government had been using a trial version of a tool — developed by Britain’s Gamma International — that allowed them to eavesdrop on Skype conversations, widely believed to be safe from wiretapping.
And it’s not just off-the-shelf technology; some Western companies supply dictators with customized solutions to block offensive Web sites. A March report by OpenNet Initiative, an academic group that monitors Internet censorship, revealed that Netsweeper, based in Canada, together with the American companies Websense and McAfee (now owned by Intel), have developed programs to meet most of the censorship needs of governments in the Middle East and North Africa — in Websense’s case, despite promises not to supply its technology to repressive governments.”