The Trade in the Tools of Tech Tyranny; Repressive governments around the world have been getting some help from Western technology

April 19, 2013, 8:02 p.m. ET

The Trade in the Tools of Tech Tyranny


Repressive governments around the world have been getting some help from Western technology.

Filtering devices built by Blue Coat Systems, an Internet-security company in Sunnyvale, Calif., have been used by the Syrian government to try to suppress the civil unrest engulfing the country. The company has acknowledged this happening but says it never sold the product to the Syrian government.

Amesys, a unit of French technology company BullBULL.FR +1.76% provided the Internet surveillance system deployed by Gadhafi’s regime to harass local journalists and dissidents before the Libyan government was overthrown in 2011. (The system’s workings were detailed in a 2011 series on censorship by the Journal.) In February of this year, a French judge refused to dismiss claims filed by human-rights groups that Amesys served as an accomplice to torture by selling its wares to Libya.Amesys confirmed it had sold equipment to Libya, during a period of Libya’s rapprochement with the West, and said its business complies with all relevant legal and regulatory requirements.

Small Internet companies such as Britain’s Gamma International have marketed their products to governments with repressive tendencies in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere.

“We have a digital arms race,” says Ronald Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, which researches the intersection of digital media, security and human rights. And the underlying problem is growing worse “because it has become so lucrative for these companies.”

The surge in demand by businesses and governments for ever-more-sophisticated cybersecurity equipment is fueling the explosion, since it’s usually the same technology, in the wrong hands, that is used to crack down on dissent. Mr. Deibert adds that he would not be surprised if bigger, more established companies get into the so-called dual-use technology business—if they haven’t already.

Estimates of the size of the industry, which is commonly called “lawful intercept,” range between $1 billion and $5 billion, but accurate measures are nearly impossible given the secrecy shrouding transactions.

Gamma’s Internet surveillance technology, called FinFisher, was found in use by 25 governments, many with histories of human-rights abuses, such as those in Egypt, Bahrain and Turkmenistan, according to research published in March by Citizens Lab. It found instances in Ethiopia where the technology was deployed to target opposition members.

Gamma has said it sells its products to governments to help combat crimes like human trafficking and pedophilia, just as this equipment is used in the U.S. and other countries with democratic forms of government. The problem is, companies have little control over where their products end up and how they are used.

In most cases, the technology sales are legal and have legitimate purposes. Highly sophisticated technology called deep packet inspection, for example, combs through the digitized packets that make up online data. It can be used to manage Internet traffic and combat cybercrime—as well as to track the online movements and activities of dissidents.

“Technologies are neither inherently ‘good’ nor inherently ‘evil,’ but they can be used in ways that are unintended and unacceptable,” Blue Coat said in a statement in February following reports that its appliances were used in dozens of countries with repressive practices, such as Egypt and Bahrain. The company added that it would continue to engage its partners to find ways to “limit misuse of its products.”

But demand will always beget supply. In recent years, a cottage industry of small European companies arose—including Germany’s DigiTask, HackingTeam of Italy and Gamma—in part to cater to the desire of government clients to find ways to penetrate Skype, whose high-level encryption has made the Internet phone company popular with activists and student organizers.

Human-rights groups have confronted the sale of Internet surveillance technology to repressive regimes primarily by seeking to expose its extent, by mapping online usage of companies’ tools. They have also put pressure on companies to improve their practices, such as by urging them to verify the human rights conduct of potential clients.

“It’s not illegal for these companies to sell to these governments,” says Eva Galperin, global policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital advocacy group. “But it is immoral.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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