Recently it was revealed that TeliaSonera cooperates with the authorities in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Belarus in providing a telephone interception system. Such an event is only a singular instance in a larger series of revelations that have been reported over the past few months. Other cases include Telecomix revealing Bluecoat surveillance equipment in Syria and the Wikileaks Spyfiles. Telecomix has even launched a project called Blue Cabinet that traces down vendors and corporations that are deeply entangled in both what we usually refer to as dictatorships and democracies.
To these cases there is a larger set of contradictions and twists that makes things very complicated. We may refer to them as hypocritical or immoral, however, it seems that these contradictions never dissolve and are very powerful in maintaining business as usual. They can be summarized as follows:
1. Government surveillance is legitimate in democratic states but not in dictatorial states. So, the western world supports “net freedom” for “democracy”.
2. Because surveillance is legal in the EU/US, it is perfectly all right to manufacture and use these technologies elsewhere where they are legal.
3. The world needs free and open communication technologies, so we sell the world technologies that makes surveillance more efficient.
This type of political reasoning enables a sort of dead lock. It makes possible for nobody to actually take responsibility for what happens. At the end of the day, politicians go home and dream of net freedom. And the corporations sleep tight knowing that what they do is within the “legal” framework.
This can be demonstrated with TeliaSonera’s response to the revelations of their surveillance system. In Dagens Nyheter, TeliaSonera replies (roughly translated):
Telephone operators are thus obliged to give [access to the network traffic] to the authorities – also in Sweden, where the police is intercepting phone calls every day, the parliament has decided that phone and data traffic should be retained and the FRA has access to all data that passes our borders.
In one sense, TeliaSonera is completely right. There is nothing strange to this thing called government surveillance. We do it legally over here in Sweden and it is enacted by democratically elected governments. EU-wide data retention and signal intelligence interception is part of everyday life. These laws and regulations do not differ very much from those of non-democratic states. The Bluecoat equipment in Syria does nothing more than the average data retention in Europe. The police in Azerbaijan basically has the same legal framework as the Swedish police. However, even though TeliaSonera is right in showing that Sweden is hypocritical, they are cowardly claiming that they have no responsibility. Only because surveillance is legal everywhere doesn’t make it right.
And still, we say that these “bad” states need more net freedom.
However, legal frameworks are often over-estimated in how they rule the world. A common misconception is that everything went crazy after 9/11. The story goes: In the fear of terrorism, EU and the US passed a different legislations that made surveillance more legal and human rights were increasingly being violated by the western world themselves.
This can in fact be easily falsified. A story most widely covered in Germany, concerns Siemens selling surveillance systems to Syria in the year of 1999 and then continued to sign more agreements in 2005 and 2008. A leaked invitation to bid dated August 1999 reveals the story of how the internet came with built-in government surveillance in Syria more or less from the beginning.
Before the deal with Siemens, the Syrian network was very small. According to the description of the current infrastructure found in the document, the capacity for e-mail was merely 5000 users.
Besides the retro-sounding paragraph 8 specifying Y2K compliance (p. 34), the invitation to bid specifies specific surveillance possibilities. For example, it says that “[filters] should not cause any delay or bottleneck while maintaining the possibility to check every packet (9)”. Moreover, the section called “Monitoring system” explains the needs of the Syrian government to pursue “law enforcement”. So, the Syrian government requests:
In addition to the above mentioned minimum requirements, the bidder should describe in details the possibilities to detect, intercept, and block the exchange of encrypted data, along with all other possible monitoring features and applications. (p. 21)
It is the year of 1999 and the IT-boom is about to explode. Syria makes a request – western companies deliver. We don’t need a Patriot Act for that to happen. The 90’s were never a wild frontier for anarcho-liberal experimentation. The surveillance systems were built long before we would even dream of an arab spring or a data retention directive.
Siemens keep up their sales in Iran and Bahrain. To these states we want to export “net freedom”. In fact, all we have exported so far are the technologies of mass surveillance.