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Regimes Use U.S. Tech to Censor Citizens, Study Finds

After revelations that Syria has used its Internet filtering hardware, a U.S. company faces similar allegations about Myanmar.
November 9, 2011

A company whose Internet-filtering servers were recently found to have been used by Syria’s regime for censorship is facing a new research report that Myanmar, too, uses its technology—and that the Syrian use is wider than acknowledged.

Middle man: A Blue Coat ProxySG 9000 Internet filtering device. The company has conceded that a shipment of these devices was used by the repressive Syrian regime. A new report says the technology has also been used in Myanmar.

The findings released today by the Citizen Lab, an Internet research center at the University of Toronto, are the latest evidence that commercial technology from the West—in this case from Blue Coat of Sunnyvale, California—is often used by repressive regimes, says Ron Deibert, the lab’s director, who posted the findings today in a blog.

“Prior research by our group, and others like it, have highlighted the growing market for censorship, surveillance, and even offensive computer network attack products and services,” Deibert says. “It is distressing that many, but not all, of the companies that sell this technology are based in liberal democratic regimes.”

A spokesman for Blue Coat said he hadn’t seen the report and pointed to the company’s October statement about the Syrian matter. The company said in the statement that its “appliances apparently were transferred illegally to Syria.”

The statement adds: “Blue Coat is mindful of the violence in Syria and is saddened by the human suffering and loss of human life that may be the result of actions by a repressive regime. We don’t want our products to be used by the government of Syria or any other country embargoed by the United States. If our review of the facts about this diversion presents solutions that enable us to better protect against future illegal and unwanted diversion of our products, we intend to take steps to implement them.”

Both Syria and Myanmar are known for serious human-rights violations and are subject to U.S. trade embargoes. In Syria, the United Nations says that the government of President Bashar al-Assad has killed more than 3,500 people over the course of the citizen uprising that has gone on for eight months. Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Blue Coat’s technology was used to help the government block or log Syrians’ attempts to connect to and other sites related to protests against the government.

The latest report from the Toronto group indicates that Blue Coat’s technology was more widely used in Syria than previously thought. Deibert says that while the company acknowledges 13 of its servers ended up in Syria, forensic analysis of networks shows that at least 15 of its devices are in use there. And after Citizen Lab conducted a forensic examination of Internet traffic in Myanmar, “we found very strong evidence that Blue Coat devices are presently employed in Burma at the highest level to censor the Internet and facilitate surveillance,” he said. The report offers no insight into how the devices, if they are indeed in use in Myanmar, might have ended up there.

Deibert said prior Citizen Lab reports showed that products from the Canadian company Netsweeper are being used in a variety of countries to block access to Web content related to human rights, political opposition, and gay and lesbian issues. Technology from McAfee, now owned by Intel, and Websense has also been used in repressive regimes. In a recent blog post, Websense called on the industry to regulate itself more tightly.

Deibert called on Blue Coat to take action to prevent further use of its technology by repressive regimes. But it’s not clear that the transfer broke any U.S. embargo. “We are unclear whether it constitutes a violation of the sanctions according to the strict reading of the sanctions themselves,” Deibert says. “But certainly they constitute a violation of the spirit of the laws, and raise some serious questions about lack of due diligence on the part of Blue Coat.”

Calls to the State Department press office about Blue Coat were not immediately returned.

Changes to this story were made on 11/11/2011.

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