Syria using American software to censor Internet, experts say

October 22, 2011

Syria is using equipment and software developed by an American company to censor the Internet and conduct surveillance of its citizens, according to data analyzed by technology experts and advocates for Syrian dissidents.

The equipment, developed by California-based Blue Coat Systems, is allegedly being used by Syria’s autocratic government to block access to the Internet and crack down on dissidents who have been protesting against President Bashar al-Assad for nearly eight months, the experts and advocates say.

U.S. officials say they are reviewing reports that Syria’s government is using the company’s products. “The issue of Blue Coat’s technology being used in Syria is one that the State Department is taking very seriously and is very concerned about,” said a State Department official who would discuss the matter only on the condition of anonymity.

A senior administration official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, noted that sanctions restrict U.S. companies from trade with Syria. “Our sanctions provide for some exceptions for certain software,” the official said. “Anything exported that is not covered by exceptions would violate sanctions.”

Blue Coat, based in Sunnyvale, said it has not sold equipment or software to the Syrian government, but a spokesman did not deny that Syria could have obtained the products through a third party.

“Blue Coat does not sell to Syria,” spokesman Steve Schick said in an e-mail. “We comply with U.S. export laws, and we do not allow our partners to sell to embargoed countries.” Sales by U.S. companies to Syria are illegal under sanctions imposed by President George W. Bush in 2004.

Eric King of Privacy International, a London-based nonprofit group that challenges government surveillance, said the company’s products can enable a government to monitor the Internet activity of large numbers of people. “In the wrong hands, Blue Coat technology can all too easily be used as a tool of political control,” he said.

Given the nature of the gray market for surveillance and monitoring equipment, Syria may have acquired the Blue Coat equipment indirectly, according to Pratap Chatterjee of London’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which is probing the allegations.

“A lot of the manufacturers don’t know or don’t want to know who’s buying their technology because they could be subject to fines or prosecution in their countries,” Chatterjee said.

Reports of Syria’s alleged use of Blue Coat products originated with Telecomix, a group founded by Swedish hackers in 2006 that has been providing support to dissidents in the Middle East.

Telecomix released electronic records from the Syria Telecommunications Establishment, which the group said showed that the government was using Blue Coat equipment to prohibit its citizens from browsing certain Web sites and social media. In August, Telecomix activists said they downloaded 54 gigabytes of Syrian telecommunications data that indicated that the Blue Coat technology was being used to filter Internet communications in the country.

“These devices are clearly manufactured by Blue Coat, and they are clearly in Syria and administered by the state telecommunications company,” said Peter Fein, a computer programmer with Telecomix. “They are being used to block Syrians of every political stripe, and even those not politically active, of accessing sites that we in the West take for granted, things like Facebook and Twitter. They are also being used to monitor the communications of peaceful dissidents.”

Amr Al-Azm, a Syrian activist who fled to the United States in 2006 and has played an active role in organizing the uprisings in Syria this year, called the ability to spread information via the Internet “the tools of our trade.”

“It is vital that the U.S. finds ways to restrict regimes like the Assad regime in getting this technology,” said Al-Azm, who is now an assistant professor of history at Shawnee State University in Ohio. “These uprisings are meant to be peaceful, so our primary weapon is our ability to spread information.”

Blue Coat promotes itself as a leading provider of Web security and management. Founded in 1996, the company sells to more than 15,000 customers worldwide, according to its Web site. The company, originally called CacheFlow, had revenue of $487.1 million in 2010. It sells high-end computer security systems, which give some of the world’s biggest corporations the tools to do sophisticated “data management” by blocking users from accessing certain sites and tracking users who try to access such sites.

The company’s biggest customer in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia, with major sales in United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Yemen, according to a Blue Coat news release.

In recent months, technology experts have alleged that Western companies are knowingly or unknowingly selling technology to authoritarian regimes.

“Hundreds of Western companies are pitching these kinds of surveillance technologies to some of the most authoritarian regimes in the world, turning a blind eye to the ways in which these dangerous technologies are being used to monitor and oppress,” King said. “Stricter regulation of this trade is desperately needed.”

Staff writer Shyamantha Asokan and researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

Sari Horwitz covers the Justice Department, after 30 years at the paper where she has been an investigative reporter and covered federal law enforcement, crime, education and social services.
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