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 Era of the digital mercenaries

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PostSubject: Era of the digital mercenaries   Tue Mar 12, 2013 10:05 am

“My computer was arrested before I was.” This perceptive comment was made by a Syrian activist who had been arrested and tortured by the Assad regime. Caught by means of online surveillance, Karim Taymour told a Bloomberg[1] journalist that, during interrogation, he was shown a stack of hundreds of pages of printouts of his Skype chats and files downloaded remotely from his computer hard drive. His torturers clearly knew as much as if they had been with him in his room, or more precisely, in his computer.

Online surveillance is a growing danger for journalists, bloggers, citizen-journalists and human rights defenders. The Spyfiles that WikiLeaks released in 2012 showed the extent of the surveillance market, its worth (more than 5 billion dollars) and the sophistication of its products.

Traditional surveillance has not completely disappeared. Policemen continue to lurk near Internet cafés in Eritrea. Vietnamese dissidents are followed and sometimes attacked by plainclothes policemen. The Chinese cyber-dissident Hu Jia and his wife Zeng Jinyang have had policemen stationed at the foot of their apartment building for months. Intelligence agencies still find it useful to tap the phones of over-curious journalists. But online surveillance has expanded the range of possibilities for governments.

This year’s “Enemies of the Internet” report is focusing on surveillance – all the monitoring and spying that is carried out in order to control dissidents and prevent the dissemination of sensitive information, activities designed to shore up governments and head off potential destabilization.

Today, 12 March, World Day Against Cyber-Censorship, we are publishing two lists. One is a list of five “State Enemies of the Internet,” five countries whose governments are involved in active, intrusive surveillance of news providers, resulting in grave violations of freedom of information and human rights. The five state enemies are Syria, China, Iran, Bahrainand Vietnam.

The other is a list of five “Corporate Enemies of the Internet,” five private-sector companies that are “digital era mercenaries.” The five companies chosen are Gamma, Trovicor, Hacking Team, Amesys and Blue Coat, but the list is not exhaustive and will be expanded in the coming months. They all sell products that are liable to be used by governments to violate human rights and freedom of information.

Their products have been or are being used to commit violations of human rights and freedom of information. If these companies decided to sell to authoritarian regimes, they must have known that their products could be used to spy on journalists, dissidents and netizens. If their digital surveillance products were sold to an authoritarian regime by an intermediary without their knowledge, their failure to keep track of the exports of their own software means they did not care if their technology was misused and did not care about the vulnerability of those who defend human rights.

Research by Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab has established that surveillance technology used against dissidents and human rights defenders in such countries as Egypt, Bahrain and Libya came from western companies. Two types of corporate products are criticized in our report: on the one hand, equipment used for large-scale monitoring of the entire Internet, and on the other, spyware and other kinds of tools that permit targeted surveillance.

This type of spyware is used to spy on the content of computer hard disks, recover passwords, access instant messaging content and monitor VoIP conversations. It can be installed on computers directly or remotely via the Internet, without the user noticing, by means of false updates or email attachments. Use of this kind of spyware by the private sector is limited. Some producers supply it directly to state agents such as intelligence and security services. Others openly advertise their software’s ability to track down and spy on government opponents. Authoritarian regimes use it to spy on journalists and their sources and thereby suppress freedom of information.

Some surveillance technology can be used in two different ways. It can be used for the legitimate purpose of combating cyber-crime. And, in the hands of authoritarian regimes, it can be turned into formidable censorship and surveillance weapons against human rights defenders and independent news providers. The lack of legislation and oversight of trade in these “digital weapons” allows authoritarian governments to identify critical journalists and citizen-journalists and go after them.

Reporters Without Borders calls for the introduction of controls on the export of surveillance software and hardware to countries that flout fundamental rights. The private sector cannot be expected to police itself. Legislators must intervene. The European Union and the United States have already banned the export of surveillance technology to Iran and Syria. This praiseworthy initiative should not be an isolated one. European governments need to take a harmonized approach to controlling the export of surveillance technology. The Obama administration should also adopt legislation of this kind, legislation such as the proposed Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA).

more here: http://surveillance.rsf.org/en/

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