The communications devices activists use are not as safe as they might believe, and dozens of companies -- many of them based in North America and Europe -- are selling technology to authoritarian governments that can be used against democratic movements. Such tools can exploit security flaws in the activists' technology, intercept a user's communications, or even pinpoint their location. In many cases, this technology has led to the arrest, torture, and even death of individuals whose only "crime" was exercising their universal right to free speech. And, in most of these cases, the public knew nothing about it.
Recent investigations by the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News have revealed just how expansively these technologies are already being used. Intelligence agencies throughout the Middle East can today scan, catalogue, and read virtually every email in their country. The technology even allows them to change emails while en route to their recipient, as Tunisian authorities sometimes did before the revolution.
These technologies turn activists' phones against them, allowing governments to listen in on phone calls, read text messages, even scan cell networks and pinpoint callers with voice recognition. They allow intelligence agents to monitor movements of activists via a GPS locator updated every fifteen seconds. And by tricking users into installing malware on their devices -- as is currently happening in Syria - government agents can remotely turn on a laptop webcam or a cell phone microphone without its user knowing.
In Syria recently, American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik were killed by a mortar attack that may have been targeted to the locations of their satellite phones. We don't know for sure how the Syrian army tracked them, but Lebanese intelligence had recorded Syrian officials as planning to target Western journalists, and following satellite phone signals is just one of the tech-aided ways they could have done it.
Syria and other abusive Middle Eastern regimes rely on technology companies such as Area SpA, the Italian firm that contracted with the regime there to build a surveillance center, and that pulled out only after exposure by Bloomberg News prompted protests at their Italian headquarters. There's also the American company Bluecoat Systems. When it was reported that their Internet-monitoring equipment had been re-sold to the Syrian government, a senior VP told the Wall Street Journal, "We don't want our products to be used by the government of Syria or any other country embargoed by the United States."
For all the evil of Syria's regime, it's hard to ignore the role and often the complicity of Western technology companies that can sometimes act as dictator's little helper. While Syria's use of surveillance has been particularly egregious and well-documented, this problem goes far beyond just one country. For years, Western firms have been selling surveillance equipment to the most brutal regimes. And while sales to Syria often violate sanctions policy, such companies can sell to many other authoritarian countries -- many of them U.S. and E.U. allies -- without repercussions.