White House targets nations that oppress using tech

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the Holocaust Museum April 23, 2012 in Washington, D.C.

President Obama chose the backdrop of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington to announce a new policy aimed at punishing countries that practice violence after gathering information about citizens online. “I've signed an executive order that authorizes new sanctions against the Syrian government and Iran and those that abet them for using technologies to monitor and track and target citizens for violence,” said Mr. Obama. “These technologies should not empower -- these technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to repress them.”

Conventional wisdom used to be that if there's an open Internet, a repressive government was doomed. People would organize, air grievances, gather strength and simply not take it anymore. But that may not necessarily be the case.

“Countries like Iran, Syria are becoming much more savvy about to use those same technologies to isolate and identify individuals that are involved in anti-regime activism,” says Ron Deibert of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. “I think it's instructive for example that whereas Egypt took a rather cumbersome step of blocking the Internet entirely for a few days, Syria actually unblocked sites like Facebook and YouTube. Why did they do that? Probably because it enables them to more readily engage in surveillance.”

Obama's order is about countries who inflict violence after spying on citizens. The practice of using modern technology to gather data about citizens, on the other hand, is not limited to Syria or Iran. It happens in countries all over the world, including the U.S. “The United States government forces phone companies and Internet providers to build wiretapping capabilities into their networks,” says privacy researcher Chris Soghoian.

Soghoian says the actual technology is not all that sophisticated and that once American companies had engineered that ability, it only made sense to make it available to other countries when exporting the technology abroad. “So really, the initial demand came from the United States and the problematic uses that we're objecting to now are when they're being used by governments we're not so friendly with,” he says, “but we should acknowledge that every government at this point spies on its citizens Internet and telecommunications use and this is sort of the normal state.”

Also on this program, we eat some Tech Vegetables. Intel has introduced its new line of Ivy Bridge processors. The processor is the brains of a computer, turns what you want to do on a computer into an actual thing that happens on the computer.

What you need to know about these new things is that the transistors on them are IMPOSSIBLY small. Like 22 NANOmeters per transistor. Four thousand of them could fit across a human hair. 

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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