Tech firms helped Gaddafi spy on Libyans

Libyan protesters step on a poster of leader Muammar Gaddafi in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on February 28, 2011 as world powers ramped up the pressure on Gaddafi's regime and the United States urged the international community to work together on further steps to end bloodshed in Libya.

Tess Vigeland: Today's Wall Street Journal features a perfect example of what happens when reporters go digging, especially in places that haven't seen sunshine for decades. This time, they discovered new evidence of foreign companies cooperating with the Gaddafi government in Libya, supplying surveillance technology used to track dissidents.

Margaret Coker is one of the reporters on this story and she's with us now via Skype from Libya's capital city, Tripoli. Thanks for joining us.

Margaret Coker: Thank you very much.

Vigeland: Much of the surveillance that you uncovered took place in, I guess, a dingy room there on the ground floor of a six-story building in Tripoli. Can you describe for us what you found?

Coker: Right. Col. Gaddafi has ruled the country here with an interlocking web of different spy networks and agencies. I've been researching the firms that have been selling surveillance technology to Libya for a number of years now, and so I popped into this abandoned, sort of spooky building with lots of hallways and unmarked doors, and lo and behold, I found the headquarters of the Internet surveillance network.

Vigeland: So these companies that you talk about in the article -- everything from a French technology firm, you mentioned a subsidiary of Boeing, a Chinese telecom company -- we're really spanning the globe here, aren't we?

Coker: Right, we can't blame Western technology firms here; there really are a lot of firms involved from all over the globe. And just to be clear, it does not appear that any of these companies broke any laws by selling to Libya. Libya has been removed from international sanctions lists since 2006 and it's been a very lucrative partner for many multinational firms. Libyan activists knew that they were being monitored; they were trying to take precautions. Skype seems to be a very safe place for them. And the days before the revolt kicked off here, Gaddafi's men were trying to monitor Skype. Narus, which is the Boeing subsidiary, that sells a technology that is thought to be able to break the Skype encryption; they were involved in talks with Libyans but they ultimately did not end up selling that technology to Libya.

Vigeland: Tell me about the Eagle system, which was installed by the French technology firm Amesys. What did that help the Gaddafi government do?

Coker: That system is known as a deep package inspection package. That allows eavesdroppers or spies to be able to basically see your email traffic; also capture attachments that you have. So some of the files that I reviewed showed things just like this: two Libyans who are discussing an anti-Gaddafi video that makes fun of his hairdo; or a discussion between two people describing Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, who tried to paint a portrait of himself as a great economic and political reformer, and some people just never bought that campaign. So you have these discussions that are being eavesdropped on, and then people being put on watch lists, and then either having to go underground to evade arrests or actually ending up getting arrested.

Vigeland: And I don't know if you would know the answer to this question, but is it possible that this surveillance that you found could be used to prosecute the government?

Coker: Well, the systems certainly do have very large memories attached to them; you know, they keep millions and millions of emails and phone calls within their servers. So if indeed the servers are still intact, of course, the records of this data can be brought back and used to build cases against the Gaddafi intelligence agencies.

Vigeland: Margaret Coker is a reporter with the Wall Street Journal. We've been speaking with her via Skype from Tripoli. Thank you so much for joining us, and thanks for sharing your article.

Coker: Thanks for giving me the time.


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