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It’s Time to Sanction Repression Profiteers

What's taking the Obama administration so long to make good on its promises?

by
Ryan Mauro

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June 15, 2011 - 12:00 am
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There is nothing more despicable than companies seeking to earn profit by helping to repress those fighting for freedom. PJ Media and other outlets hit Siemens and Nokia hard, and their complicity in the suppression of Iran’s Green Revolution ultimately resulted in an end to the firm’s business with the regime. But the problem doesn’t end there. Western companies continue to sell surveillance equipment to oppressive governments. There is no reason for this to be tolerated. They should be sanctioned and targeted by consumer boycotts driven by America’s powerful voices in media, politics, and (hopefully) Hollywood.

Take Skype. Because of its encrypted communications, it’s a favorite tool of freedom-fighters around the world, from Venezuela to Iran to China. Now, largely with the help of Western firms who put money above the freedoms that they enjoy, repressive governments are working to rid citizens of Skype’s protections.“A cottage industry of U.S. and other companies is now designing and selling tools that can be used to block or eavesdrop on Skype conversations,” reports the Wall Street Journal. For example, software is now available that can record the audio streams of a computer, including phone calls made via Skype.

After Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fell, the headquarters of the state security agency was entered. One of the documents found was a top-secret memo dated January 1, 2011. It revealed that the Egyptian government had been trying out hacking software called FinSpy, created by Gamma International of the United Kingdom. The company offered it to the Egyptian government for a little less than $560,000, along with training in its use for four security officers. The software was used by the government to hack into Skype accounts and record the communication of users, as well as to break into Hotmail, Google, and Yahoo accounts.

In Libya, the rebels have discovered that spyware was distributed through activists’ Skype contact lists. Once targeted, everything they said and every key they hit was recorded. A Hong Kong-based company named TOM Group provided the Chinese government with filtering technology that stops certain keywords from being used in chats. Now, in Syria, hundreds of activists have been arrested in recent weeks with the help of Iranian Revolutionary Guards forces armed with Internet monitoring software.

The Obama administration has said it is committed to Internet freedom. In January, Secretary of State Clinton said the U.S. will help “people in oppressive Internet environments get around filters” and “stay one step ahead of the censors, the hackers, and the thugs who beat them up or imprison them for what they say online.” Well, what’s taking so long?

The U.S. and its allies should not wait to assist democratic activists, especially those seeking to change ones that threaten us like in Syria and Iran. It is probable that the software the Iranians are using against the Syrian uprising is the same Siemens and Nokia technology they used against their own Green Revolution. Once a software is sold, it is sold.

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