"My computer was arrested before I was." So says the Syrian activist Karim Taymour. He was detained on his way to a meeting with one of his contacts, which he'd arranged online. During his interrogation by the country's authorities, he was then shown hundreds of pages of print-outs of his own Skype chats, and files that had been downloaded remotely from his computer hard drive.
He's not alone. That particular tactic's being used in several other countries too -- in Iran, Saeid Pourheydar, a journalist who was arrested back in 2010, said the intelligence officers who questioned him brandished transcripts of his phone conversations, copies of his emails and print-outs of his text messages. If you're an activist or a journalist with sensitive information, it's getting harder and harder to keep it safe.
Reporters Without Borders has been investigating countries that operate some of the most restrictive and oppressive areas of cyberspace, in its new report, 'Enemies of the Internet.' Syria and Iran join China, Bahrain and Vietnam on top of the list of five spy states -- all of which conduct continuous online surveillance, that can lead to serious human rights violations. China of course is well known for its Great Firewall, probably the most sophisticated censorship system in the world -- but Iran, too, has taken online surveillance to a new level, and is developing its own national 'halal' Internet, entirely monitored and censored, and with plans to host all websites on local servers. And in Syria, recent documents have shown that the system was designed from the outset to include filtering, spying and recording -- and can also be deliberately cut off, as happened to the entire country on the 29th and 30th November 2012.
But how do they manage it? How can Vietnam's Communist Party read your text messages? How does China carry out cyber attacks on the New York Times and CNN? How does Bahrain's royal family capture IP addresses and send out malware from journalists' accounts? The technology has to come from somewhere, and that's why we've also singled out five corporate enemies of the internet -- that is, private sector companies who are effectively the mercenaries of the digital age. Without the services and software they provide, authoritarian regimes wouldn't be able to deny their citizens freedom of information, or attack others, nearly so effectively. Gamma, Trovicor, Hacking Team, Amesys and Blue Coat might not be companies everyone's heard off, but their products' harmful effects are becoming well documented.
Trovicor's surveillance services gave Bahrain's royal family the means of spying on news providers and arresting them. In Syria, Blue Coat's Deep Packet Inspection products made it possible for Bashar al Assad's government to spy on dissidents all over the country, as well as arrest and torture them. Amesys products were discovered in the offices of Muammar Gaddafi's secret police, and malware designed by Hacking Team and Gamma International has been used by governments to capture journalists' passwords. There's a growing trend for regimes who are trying to control news and information to do it subtly -- not with big blocks on content, but refined surveillance on targets who are often unaware of it. And they do it using these companies' software.
So what can we do about it? Well, there's already been some progress. In July 2012, the UN's Human Rights Council affirmed that 'the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online...regardless of frontiers and through any media'. The US and the EU have already banned exporting surveillance technology to Iran and Syria - now European governments need to harmonize their approach to exporting such products. The Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA) is one proposed solution.
But until politicians find a way to stop this technology falling into the wrong hands, we're trying to help journalists and netizens work around it. Just as reporters going into war zones need a flak jacket and a helmet, so when they're working online they also need cyber protection - such as our Online Survival Kit (on the WeFightCensorship website.) It explains how to purge files of their metadata, which gives too much information away, tells you how to use the Tor network or VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to make your communications untrace-able, and advises on securing your data on mobiles and laptops.
Two billion people across the world now have access to the internet -- but for a third of them, that access is limited by government censorship, filtering and surveillance. The Internet's founders saw it as a place of freedom, a place where anyone could exchange information and ideas, a place that went beyond borders. That model is now under threat -- in a battle without bombs or bullets. And the future of freedom of information is at stake.
Special thanks to Lorna Shaddick
Read the full report on the Enemies of the Internet 2013