The downside to Western technology in the Middle East

A man shows a BlackBerry smartphone at his mobile shop in Dubai.

Kai Ryssdal: Reports out of Syria the past couple of days are pretty grim. The government's using snipers and tanks to put down protests all over the country. Something more than 600 people are said to have been killed.

It's virtually certain the regime is using less deadly measures as well. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter helped bring disaffected citizens together all over the Middle East. But a lot of Silicon Valley firms have also had a hand in propping up autocrats, censoring the Internet and keeping tabs on thousands of activists.

Marketplace's Steve Henn reports.


Steve Henn: John Palfrey at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society says its obvious that social networks and mobile phones played a huge role in the Arab Spring. But...

John Palfrey: They also can be a wonderful tool for tyrants.

Digital surveillance and online censorship is a booming business in the Middle East. Many Western firms are rushing to cash in. Just 10 days after Hosni Mubarak stepped down in Egypt -- as tanks were rolling into Bahrain's capital -- hundreds of representatives of U.S. and Western tech firms were flocking to the ISS World conference in Dubai.

Jerry Lucas: ISS stands for Intelligence Support Systems.

Jerry Lucas has organized this event for years. It's kind of a global meet-and-greet, bringing together firms that make surveillance tech and potential customers.

Lucas: Our attendees, many of them, are undercover agents.

So this isn't the kind of conference where a reporter can just wander around collecting cards and asking questions. It's a mix of sales pitches and in-depth training sessions for police, counter-terrorism analysts and agents.

Lucas: We had over a thousand registered, but actually only about 830-something showed up.

This year there was a raft of last minute cancellations from Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain.

Lucas: But, of course, we had a strong attendance from Saudi Arabia.

Also Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Central Asia. This year's sessions focused on tapping into encrypted cell-phone networks, or how to do mass geo-location and tracking using mobile phones. And some of the most popular explored the latest techniques for mining intel from social networks. Lucas says these are all legitimate technologies for police work and fighting terrorism. But...

Lucas: Can these tools be used to suppress people's rights? Yes.

Facebook and Twitter received lots of credit for helping to spread the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia -- but Silicon Valley contributions to the Arab Spring are actually much more complicated. Within a half hour's drive of Facebook's Palo Alto headquarters there are at least a half a dozen other tech firms whose sales in the Middle East facilitate surveillance or censorship. Driving down Highway 101 from Palo Alto you'll pass the headquarters of McAfee and Palo Alto Networks -- both sell technology that's widely used in the Middle East to censor the net. You'll pass Polaris -- which helps states track their citizens using their cell phones -- and if you turn and left and head out to Milpitas you'll reach SS8. In security circles, SS8 is kind of infamous for designing software to bug BlackBerries.

Tyler Shields is a security consultant at Veracode.

Tyler Shields: Essentially, a lot of countries in the Middle East and Asia like to monitor all data in and outbound from their borders.

But BlackBerries use their own network and everything is encrypted. Shields says SS8 designed a workaround -- a bug that can be downloaded onto a BlackBerry. And a couple of years ago the United Arab Emirates pushed that kind of software out onto every BlackBerry on its network. Hundreds of thousands of customers were told it was a necessary patch.

Shields: It actually wasn't a patch at all. What it was, was a spyware-type package.

Shields and others tore the patch apart and found evidence this spyware was made by SS8. SS8 didn't respond to multiple requests to comment, but their executives did travel to Dubai this winter to drum up more business and offer training sessions to officials and agents at ISS World conference. In fact, none of the companies mentioned in this story would talk at all.

John Palfrey at Harvard's Berkman Center is disappointed, but he's not surprised.

John Palfrey: My question to them would be what's wrong with selling into, say, 170 markets in the world and setting aside 30 markets where you know there might be a problem with how people use these technologies.

Their answer might be very simple -- money. Saudi Arabia alone is expected to spend up to $90 billion on security and surveillance technologies in the next six years.

In Silicon Valley, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.

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