Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 36 Issue 4 Winter 2015
Conflicts in Syria and Yemen are seeing increased use of surveillance and web-filtering software against civilians
Crises such as the civil wars in Syria and Yemen are raising not only humanitarian concerns, but concern over the increasing use of surveillance technology and web-filtering software, which could have dire effects on the civilian population.
The continued export of internet surveillance technology to countries with worrisome human rights records has led to calls for better regulation. Some have even suggested, according to New York Times reporter James Risen (2015), that “such technology is emerging as a 21st century version of the arms trade” and should be similarly controlled. Thus far, governments have been slow to consider regulation of these technologies. Recent events in Yemen show why more needs to be done—now.
The case of Yemen
The security environment is rapidly deteriorating in Yemen. Some 6,000 people have been killed since civil war erupted last March; more than 80 per cent of the population is in dire need of humanitarian assistance (Rodrigues 2015).
When revolution in 2011 ended the 33-year reign of Ali Abduallah Saleh, there was a great deal of hope for Yemen’s future. Former Vice-President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi replaced Saleh as President in single-candidate elections in 2012.
A transitional arrangement was put in place and, after some unrest between warring factions, the fragile country experienced a degree of stability. A new constitution was to be developed through an inclusive national dialogue. The number of websites, television and radio stations, and newspapers increased dramatically between 2011 and 2014. According to local reporters, during this period they had more freedom and were free to criticize the government.
But Hadi was unable to bring together the various groups in the country and did not enjoy country-wide support. In the north, Houthi rebels, members of the Zaidi Shiite group, boycotted elections and opposed Hadi. A southern separatist movement also challenged any attempts at centralization. Adding to the complexity on the ground was a group associated with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
In late September 2014, rebel Houthis took control of most of the country, including the capital city Sana’a, and key institutions. AQAP also expanded its influence and continued attacks. In response to the Houthi takeover, a coalition of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia began air strikes over Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition sees the Houthis as allies of rival Iran and want Hadi returned to power.
For the citizens of Yemen, information on the air strikes is crucial. Although Yemen is a poor country, some 20 per cent of the population of 24 million use the internet—the main source of such information (Freeze 2015).
A recent report by The Citizen Lab (Dalek et al, 2015), an interdisciplinary research group based at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, alleges that software developed by Netsweeper Inc., a Waterloo-based company, initially provided to the government of Yemen has ended up in the hands of the rebel groups. The software is essentially web-filtering technology that allows clients to block content. As Globe and Mail reporter Colin Freeze notes, the use of this technology by companies is not controversial, but it is problematic when used in circumstances such as those currently in Yemen. As Citizen Lab founder Ron Deibert explains, “Broadcasts that were being made for people to protect themselves against air strikes were not accessible, because a lot of that media has been blocked” (Freeze 2015).
On the ground, as The Citizen Lab report highlights, control over information has increased. Accessing the internet or powering mobile phones has become a challenge as the militia carries out deliberate power outages. There is a shortage of fuel needed to power generators. Oil exports, which account for the majority of the country’s revenue, have stopped. Most importantly, the national internet service provider, YemenNet, is controlled by the Houthi militia. Despite this change of hands of their technology, The Citizen Lab has discovered that Netsweeper Inc. has continued its provisioning on YemenNet.
Other sources of information are being shut down. Since January 2015, 10 journalists have been killed and 14 imprisoned (Rodrigues 2015). Only two newspapers in Yemen are still operating, both under Houthi control. Activists who try to get information out are being targeted; prominent activist and doctor Abdulkader al-Juneid was kidnapped from his home following posts he made on Twitter that criticized the Houthi militia. Only a few foreign journalists operate in the country. It’s hard for them to get in, with the two weekly flights to Sana’a controlled by Saudi Arabia, which is attempting to control information on its military operations in Yemen.
The dual-use problem
The dual-use of Netsweeper and similar technology is at the heart of the regulation problem. The technology developed by U.S. and Canadian companies has legitimate uses by governments and businesses around the world. It is also used by activists to organize protests and communicate with likeminded individuals at home and abroad. However, there can be no question that authoritarian regimes are interested in acquiring these technologies to suppress dissent and, at times, target activists.
The tech industry is understandably concerned about potential controls on exports. They emphasize that limiting exports of technology also limits its positive effects.
Using surveillance technology to censor information is not isolated to Yemen. In fact, Citizen Lab has already examined the use of Netsweeper’s web-filtering technology in Pakistan and Somalia, for example (Westhead 2015). These cases raise more general, important questions about the export of internet surveillance technology to censor information or for surveillance of the population and particular individuals.
Earlier this year, the U.S. government charged Ayman Ammar and Rashid Albuni for illegally shipping equipment developed by U.S. company Blue Coat Systems to the Syrian government (Risen 2015). The technology allowed the Syrian government to monitor internet traffic and gave it the ability to spy on individuals opposing the regime. The U.S. response was precipitated by a Citizen Lab report (2011) that warned of the use of Blue Coat Systems technology in Syria.
Progress on regulation
Regulation has made some progress. The European Union banned exports of surveillance technology to Syria. This past May, the U.S. Commerce Department put forward a proposal for new licensing requirements on exports of surveillance technology. This licensing was meant to line up with the 2013 Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies, a multilateral arrangement signed by the United States and 40 other countries, including Canada (Stevenson 2015). However, after loud opposition from the U.S. tech industry, the proposal was shelved.
Obviously, any new regulations will have to be developed in close consultation with the tech industry. This is the plan of the U.S. Commerce Department. However, it is ultimately the responsibility of states to set high standards. At the same time, tech companies must be responsible global actors and limit use of their products by repressive regimes that aim to violate human rights.
However, as The Citizen Lab has uncovered, companies such as Hacking Team, an Italian interception company, appear to be approaching and “courting” authoritarian regimes (Marquis-Boire 2012). In such cases, regulation should be put in place to inhibit company practices.
The growth in the use of surveillance technology alerts us to several realities of contemporary warfare and to our international obligations:
Governments must ensure that surveillance technology, which could potentially suppress legitimate opposition and dissent, is not sold to countries with authoritarian regimes and appalling human rights records.
Technology is central to contemporary warfare. The global society must pay closer attention to how the technology is used and develop appropriate policy responses.
Governments AND companies share a responsibility to ensure that technology and weapons do not go to regimes that will use them to harm civilians and political opponents.
Citizen Lab, The. 2011. Behind Blue Coat: Investigations of commercial filtering in Syria and Burma. Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, November 9.
Dalek, Jakub, Ronald Deibert, Sarah McKune, Phillipa Gill, Naser Noor & Adam Senft. 2015. Information Controls during Military Operations: The case of Yemen during the 2015 political and armed conflict. The Citizen Lab. Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.
Freeze, Colin. 2015. Canadian software tied to Yemen civil war, report alleges. The Globe and Mail, October 21.
Marquis Boire, Morgan. 2012. Backdoors are Forever: Hacking Team and the Targeting of Dissent, October, The Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.
Risen, James. 2015. Battle heats up over exports of surveillance technology. The New York Times, October 31.
Rodrigues, Charlene. 2015. The world needs to know about Yemen’s war. But journalists are being silenced. The Guardian, October 26.
Stevenson, Alistair. 2015. A tiny change to this obscure arms dealing agreement could kill the cyber security industry. Business Insider UK, July 22.
Westhead, Rick. 2013. Pakistan uses Canadian company Netsweeper to monitor, censor Internet: Study. Toronto Star, June 20.