Thursday, September 24, 2009

Selling surveillance to authoritarian regimes

Timothy Garton Ash has a strong comment piece in today's Guardian on the continuing political developments in Iran. He suggests:
A textbook example of what democracies should not do was provided last year by a joint venture between Siemens and Nokia, called Nokia Siemens Networks. It sold the Iranian regime a sophisticated system with which they can monitor the internet, including emails, internet phone calls and social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, much used by Iranian protesters. In today's politics of people power, that is the equivalent of selling a dictator tanks or poison gas.

So, to be clear: a German company, Siemens, which used slave labour during the Third Reich, sold a Holocaust-denying president the instruments with which he can persecute young Iranians risking their lives for freedom. Think of that every time you buy something made by Siemens.

When this first hit the news in June, Nokia Siemens stated that they had sold technology that would allow Iran to monitor phone calls rather than Internet usage. The former is mandated in many countries' telephone networks under "lawful intercept" rules, including the US and UK. The latter is not, although the UK Home Office is doing its best with its proposed Intercept Modernisation Programme.

Democratic governments need to think much more carefully before requiring technology companies to develop products that could have an extremely repressive impact in undemocratic regimes lacking human rights protections. They should also update export controls to prevent the sale of these tools to states such as Iran. In the meantime, individuals can help by diverting their business away from companies that are aiding and abetting authoritarian regimes.


Anonymous said...

What export controls? Siemens have a large HQ in Tehran. My sister-in-law works in the accounting department there. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

I may be wrong... But did he compare censorship to gas? And then go on to imply that siemens should be avoided as they have links to the nazis?

Censorship is surely a terrible thing. But comparisons to the hollocaust serve only to reduce his argument to ridiculous hyperbole.

As for the monitoring and blocking techniques themselves these are nothing new. Nor is deep packet inspection anything tricky or innovative. On a grand scale it becomes a nuisance rather than a difficulty. And it is technology employed by personal firewalls, office admins, routers. It has even been suggested as a technology to help the fight against music piracy. The argument that the techniques should never be developed is entirely ignorant of the reasons for their development. You are as well to chastise the companies who provided shower heads in the concentration camps - to bring back the obligatory hyperbole.

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that it is not a tool for censorship but a tool to identify troublemakers.

Given what happens to troublemakers in Iran be they journalists or students it rates as a tool of repression.

What were Siemens and Nokia thinking of? Money I suppose.


Anonymous said...

cool! someone let obama know! his method, of gathering email addresses, is lousy compared to this!