SPECIAL REPORT ON INTERNET SURVEILLANCE, FOCUSING ON FIVE GOVERNMENTS AND FIVE COMPANIES THAT ARE ENEMIES OF THE INTERNET
Today, 12 March, World Day Against Cyber-Censorship, Reporters Without Borders is releasing a Special report on Internet surveillance, available at surveillance.rsf.org/en. It looks at the way governments are increasingly using technology that monitors online activity and intercepts electronic communication in order to arrest journalists, citizen-journalists and dissidents. Around 180 netizens worldwide are currently in prison for providing news and information online.
For this year’s “Enemies of the Internet” report, Reporters Without Borders has identified Five State Enemies of the Internet, five “spy” states that conduct systematic online surveillance that results in serious human rights violations. They are Syria, China, Iran, Bahrain and Vietnam. Surveillance in these countries targets dissidents and has grown in recent months. Cyber-attacks and intrusions, including the use of malware against dissidents and their networks, are on the increase.
China, whose Electronic Great Wall is probably the world’s most sophisticated censorship system, has stepped up its war on the use of anonymization tools and has enlisted private-sector Internet companies to help monitor Internet users. Iran has taken online surveillance to a new level by developing its own national Internet, or “Halal Internet.” As regards Syria, Reporters Without Borders has obtained an unpublished document – a 1999 invitation by the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment to bid for a national Internet network in Syria – which shows that its Internet was designed from the outset to include extensive filtering and surveillance.
Without advanced technology, authoritarian regimes would not be able to spy on their citizens. Reporters Without Borders has for the first time compiled a list of five “Corporate Enemies of the Internet,” five private sector companies that it regards as “digital era mercenaries” because they sell products that are used by authoritarian governments to commit violations of human rights and freedom of information. They are Gamma, Trovicor, Hacking Team, Amesys and Blue Coat.
Trovicor’s surveillance and interception products have enabled Bahrain’s royal family to spy on news providers and arrest them. In Syria, Deep Packet Inspection products developed by Blue Coat made it possible for the regime to spy on dissidents and netizens throughout the country, and to arrest and torture them. Eagle products supplied by Amesys were discovered in the offices of Muammar Gaddafi’s secret police. Malware designed by Hacking Team and Gamma has been used by governments to capture the passwords of journalists and netizens.
“Online surveillance is a growing danger for journalists, citizen-journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Regimes seeking to control news and information increasingly prefer to act discreetly. Rather than resort to content blocking that generates bad publicity and is early circumvented, they prefer subtle forms of censorship and surveillance that their targets are often unaware of.
“As surveillance hardware and software provided by companies based in democratic countries is being used to commit grave human rights violations, and as the leaders of these countries say they condemn violations of online freedom of expression, it is time they took firm measures. Above all, they should impose strict controls on the export of digital arms to countries that flout fundamental rights.”
Negotiations between governments already led in July 1996 to the Wassenaar Arrangement, which aims to promote “transparency and greater responsibility in transfers of conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies, thus preventing destabilizing accumulations.” Forty countries, including France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States are nowadays party to the agreement.
By demonstrating the importance of online information, the Arab Spring reinforced authoritarian governments’ understanding of the advantages of monitoring and controlling Internet data and communication. Democratic countries also seem increasingly ready to yield to the siren song of the need for surveillance and cyber-security at any cost. This is evident from all the potentially repressive laws and bills such as FISAA and CISPA in the United States, the Communications Data Bill in Britain and the Wetgeving Bestrijding Cybercrime in the Netherlands.
Reporters Without Borders has made a “digital survival kit” available on theWeFightCensorship.org website in order to help online news providers evade increasingly active and intrusive surveillance.
Major freedom of information violations
For the government, the blogosphere is the main target. Blogs represent an enormous new information and opinion sphere – one that arouses great interest by web users. For that reason, blogs are targeted for heavy sanctions.
Huynh Ngoc Chenh (Netizen of the year for 2013), sums up the situation: “The state controls all communications. Opinions that oppose the state are not made public. Freedom of expression is practically non-existent in Vietnam. So many people use blogs to make their opinions known. But the government shuts these blogs. And many bloggers are arrested. And they are harassed, along with their families.”
In September 2012, Decree 7169/VPCP-NC directly targeted the country’s most influential blogs: Danlambao, Danglambao and Biendong. Their authors, who write under pseudonyms, face long prison terms if the Party discovers their real identities.
Anonymity is widespread in the Vietnamese blogosphere. But the Party is not letting that get in its way, using its monitoring tools to uncover the real names of targeted bloggers. If caught, they risk harsh punishment.
That was the fate of Le Nguyen Sang and Huynh Nguyen Dao in 2006. While both signed their work with false names (Nguyen Hai Son and Nguyen Hoang Long), they were identified by cyber-police and sentenced to four and two and a half years in prison, respectively.
Tran Huynh Duy Thuc was arrested in 2009, and Lu Van Bay in 2011, though both posted their work under pseudonyms. Thuc now is serving a 16-year sentence. Bay, who used four different false names, was sentenced to four years.
Blogger Panh Than Hai and writer Pham Chi Dung, a former member of the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee who contributed to “unauthorized” sites such as Phiatruoc and Quanlambao were also arrested despite their use of false names.
Information activists live under constant monitoring. Methods include physical surveillance and intimidation of those whose identities are known. Phishing and digital espionage is directed at anonymous bloggers.
One activist, who had served a prison sentence and asked to remain anonymous, told Reporters Without Borders said that following his arrest: “In prison they showed me the articles I had written, signed with a false name, the emails I had sent to colleagues and even my telephone conversations.”
This is not an isolated case. Cyber-police use all possible methods, including Man In The Middle password retrieval, hacking attacks, and mobile phone monitoring. The police aim not only to uncover bloggers’ real names, but to identify everyone in their networks.
The official justification in all of these cases is always “cooperation with reactionary organizations based abroad,” “attempt to overthrow the government,” or “anti-government propaganda”. Corruption and tax fraud allegations are also frequently aimed at journalists and bloggers. Dieu Cay, a well-known and popular blogger, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in on these charges in 2008. The repression campaign targets individual as well as collective blogs. In the former group are bloggers including Nguyen Van Dai, Pham Thanh Nghien, Le Cong Dinh, Dinh Dang Dinh, J.B Nguyen Huu Vinh, Nguoi Buon Gio, and Nguyen Quang Lap. Collective blog targets include BachDang, Quanlambao, Bauxite Viet Nam, Dong Chua Cuu The, and Nu Vuong Cong Ly.
The list is steadily growing longer. On 9 January 2013, 14 activists, including 8 bloggers and netizens were sentenced to terms ranging from 3 to 13 years in prison – a collective total of 113 years behind bars. They were charged under clauses 1 and 2 of Article 79 of the Penal Code with “participation in an attempt to overthrow the people’s administration” and “organization of an attempt to overthrow the people’s administration.”
Constant monitoring creates pressure for self-censorship by activists whose families come under official pressure. Yet despite everything, the Vietnamese web remains enormously active. For one thing, the Party does not have the capability to monitor the entire web. And authorities cannot new blogs from springing up. Some bloggers use anti-monitoring tools, such as proxies, in order to keep up their activities. And many are defiantly posting under their real names, or publicly denouncing the official campaign against them. In the words of an administrator of Danlambao: “Nobody can shut our mouth or stop our freedom of expression. This is our mission, we will continue at any cost”.
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