Sic Semper Technology

By David Hardin

When Muammar Qaddafi’s reign ended last fall, Western forces discovered that Libyan security agents had for years used network surveillance technology (NST) manufactured by Amesys, a unit of French company Bull SA, to monitor e-mails sent to and from suspected rebels. Agents used the system to go after a Libyan journalist critical of the regime. The journalist was subject to years of interrogation and other harassment and was ultimately forced into hiding.

Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East have increasingly been turning to NSTs to find and then alter or block online content deemed threatening to their authority. Also identified by other names, such as filtering technology, tracking technology, and spyware, NST represents a significant advancement over prior electronic surveillance technology because it allows for instantaneous monitoring of vast amounts of data transmitted over a telecommunications network. Another benefit is that NST requires little or no human involvement.

The methods used to analyze and receive data may vary, but the various types of NSTs generally employ hardware and software components capable of scanning the data on the network to identify particular content.

NSTs can be used to monitor almost any type of network-based data, including mobile phone communications, Web content, and e-mails. NSTs do have lawful purposes, such as gathering criminal evidence, locating distressed individuals after a disaster, and even online marketing research.

NSTs have existed in the form of surreptitious listening devices, such as the classic telephone wiretap, for a long time. Export control laws in many countries have long restricted the export of such devices, but these prohibitions have failed to keep up with the rapid evolution of communications technology. Those laws do not cover the new, more sophisticated, forms of monitoring devices. Thus, companies have generally been able to sell NSTs freely with few exceptions, such as when the sale was to a sanctioned country or individual.

That is changing. With remarkable speed, governments around the world are reacting to the ubiquitous use of NSTs by authoritarian regimes to further human rights abuses. These governments have taken steps to restrict the export of NSTs, and they are also more aggressively enforcing any applicable preexisting laws that restrict their export. As discussed ahead, significant recent changes have been implemented by the European Union (EU) and the United States government, among others.

(Click here to continue reading "Sic Semper Technology," from our October 2012 issue)

photo by zigazou76/flickr


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