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U.S., U.K. Companies Help Egyptian Regime Shut Down Telecommunications and Identify Dissidents

Democracy Now
Feb 2, 2011

Doing the regime’s bidding, British-based Vodafone shut down Egypt’s phone and internet service. The American company called Narus — owned by Boeing — sold Egypt the surveillance technology that helped identify dissident voices. We are joined by Tim Karr of Free Press and CUNY Professor C.W. Anderson. Karr outlines how communications was shut down in Egypt and discusses the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act, a proposed Senate bill that could lay the foundation for blocking communications in the United States in the case of a “national threat.” Anderson traces the activist roots of Twitter to U.S. protests at the 2004 Republican and Democratic conventions. [includes rush transcript]

AMY GOODMAN: Social media and online networks played a key role in the early organizing of the Egyptian uprising. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak underlined their power last week when he tried to shut down the internet and cut off most cell phone communication. U.S. officials led the push for Egypt to restore online access, but it was an American company called Narus, which is owned by Boeing, that has aided Egypt’s harsh response by selling them the technology that made this repression possible.

To talk more about this, we’re joined by Tim Karr, campaign director with Free Press, and C.W. Anderson, an assistant professor of communications at City University of New York. C.W. Anderson has been looking at the role of Twitter in the rebellions in Egypt and elsewhere, by those who were able to access the service.

So, Tim, let’s begin with the issue of Vodafone and Narus. Explain how, in one fell swoop, the country could be plunged into digital darkness.

Tim Karr: Well, it’s interesting. What we’re seeing is the same technology that has enabled freedom movements around the world is also being used to target and track down political dissidents. In the case of Egypt, we have a company called Narus, as you mentioned—it’s now owned by Boeing—that sells what’s called Deep Packet Inspection. It allows the Egyptian telecommunications companies, many of which are run by the state, to open up online communications, to look at texting via cell phones, and to identify the sort of dissident voices that are out there. And it goes beyond that. It also gives them the technology to geographically locate them and track them down. We had a similar problem happen in 2009 in Iran, when you had Nokia Siemens, which was a Finnish-German joint venture, selling technology to the Iranian Telecom Authority, which was also owned by the Revolutionary Guard there, to be used to track down and imprison cyber-dissidents there. And Egypt has a very sophisticated internet infrastructure, which, again, is a double-edged sword, because it’s made it very easy for the government to shut it off, while at the same time allowed for this sort of outpouring of dissidence. And the Reporters Without Borders has taken a deep look at internet abuses in Egypt and ranks it as one of the largest internet enemies.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain the difference between Narus and Vodafone. What roles do each play?

Tim Karr: Well, Narus provides a technology that sits on routers throughout the Egyptian network, that filters and spies on communications. It’s a surveillance technology. Narus was started by Israeli security experts. And they specialize in selling this. They sell it to other governments. Vodafone is a mobile phone technology system. The Vodafone Egypt is another joint venture there that also has a large Egypt control, which allows them to pull the switch on cell phone communications.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the bill that’s being introduced here—I think it’s by Senators Lieberman and Collins—that would allow the U.S. government to shut down civilian access to the internet?

Tim Karr: Yes. The bill is somewhat inelegantly called the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act. It was introduced in the last session.

AMY GOODMAN: Say it again?

Tim Karr: It’s Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act. It was introduced in the last session.

AMY GOODMAN: Don’t say that three times fast.

Tim Karr: That’s the last time I’m going to say it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll have to censor you.

Tim Karr: It was introduced in the last session by Senators Lieberman, Carper of Delaware, and Collins of Maine. It made it through the Homeland Security Committee in December, but it died by the end of the session. A Wired story from earlier this week indicated that they intend to reintroduce this bill. And the problem with the bill is that it creates in the executive branch the capacity to cut down what they call critical—to shut down critical infrastructure in the case of a national threat. So, we are—at Free Press and others, ACLU and others, are trying to make sure that that legislation, if it goes forward, doesn’t have that specific language in it.

Full story here.

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