February 10, 2011 : Corporate complicity in Egyptian regime's crimes

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When the ongoing Egyptian revolution started on 25th January, a high-profile Egyptian military delegation was in the US requesting 'help' with technology to fight the 'enemies'. It turns out that a US company, with Israeli origins, had already sold Egypt new technology to monitor Internet and mobile phone traffic to crack down on protesters' communications, possibly leading to the arrest and abuse of many. Meanwhile, US-made tear gas and other anti-riot weapons were ruthlessly used against protesters in the first few days of the mass protests, resulting in many injuries and deaths. Should the multinational corporations profiting from these crimes be held responsible? Corporate Watch investigates.

The delegation, which was headed by Egyptian chief of staff Sami Anan, was apparently in Washington for "a week of meetings with senior American officers" but had to cut short its visit two days after the uprising broke out. According to media reports (see here, for example), it specifically requested, urgently, Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology, which enables authorities or service providers to track and filter any content sent and received by Internet and phone users, as well as a 'life line' of anti-riot equipment as the Egyptian supplies were running out.

The United States already gives Egypt some $2 billion a year in 'aid', making it the second-largest recipient of US money after Israel. Most of this goes to the military (see here). According to the US State Department's 2010 budget request, this 'aid' is used to "help strengthen and modernize the Egyptian army." This is despite the American administration's full knowledge of evidence of brutal repression and human rights abuses at the hands of the Egyptian authorities (see, for example, this Wikileaks diplomatic cable). The price is 'peace' with Israel and a privileged US military access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace (see here).

Deep inspection

According to a recent report by Free Press, the DPI technology was sold to Egypt's main, state-owned telecommunications company by the notorious, California-based Narus. The company lists Telecom Egypt as one of its main customers on its website (see here) and had already sold it technology that enables the monitoring and blocking of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) traffic through its networks. VoIP, or Internet telephony, is used by many popular programmes, such as Skype, to make phone calls without the need for landline phones.

Narus is best known for creating NarusInsight, a supercomputer system used by many governments and large corporations to perform mass surveillance and monitoring of public and commercial communications in real time. The technology, sometimes known as Semantic Traffic Analysis, is known for its ability to sift through vast quantities of information at very high speeds, identifying information packets 'of interest', with the ability to target customers by application (webmail, chat, e-mail, Skype and so on) or by phone number, web address (URL), e-mail address, login account or keyword (see here). In 2006, the company's vice president for marketing, Steve Bannerman, told the Wired magazine: "Anything that comes through [an IP network], we can record. We can reconstruct all of their e-mails along with attachments, see what web pages they clicked on, we can reconstruct their [VoIP] calls."

Narus was incorporated in Delaware as a privately held US company in 1997, with headquarters in Sunnyvale, California. In July 2010, it became a wholly owned subsidiary of American aerospace and defense giant Boeing (see here). The company has venture funding from companies including JP Morgan Partners, Mayfield, NeoCarta, Presidio Venture Partners, Walden International, Intel, NTT Software and Sumisho Electronics. It also has several business partners providing various technologies similar to the features of NarusInsight (see here). For instance, VeriSign uses a Narus product as the backbone of its "lawful-intercept-outsourcing service," which enables network operators to carry out surveillance orders from law enforcement agencies. Several of these partners are funded by In-Q-Tel, a 'not-for-profit' venture capital firm that invests in high-tech companies for the sole purpose of keeping US intelligence services equipped with the latest in information technology (see here).

Narus first came to light in 2006, when whistleblower Mark Klein reported that one of the company's customers, AT&T, was allowing the US National Security Agency (NSA) to bug its customers' phone calls by installing NarusInsight boxes in secure NSA-controlled rooms in telephone switch centres around the country. The leak came in support of a class action lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation against AT&T, which had started earlier that year (see here). Back in 2004, Narus had recruited the former deputy director of NSA, William Crowell, as a director (see this press release).

Narus was originally founded by Ori Cohen, Stas Khirman and four other Israeli security experts to create and sell mass surveillance systems to governments and large corporate clients (see this Haaretz article). The company was also mainly funded in the beginning by Israeli venture capital funds, such as Walden Israel, which has continued to invest in the successful enterprise (see here). This has led many commentators to wonder how Arab countries like Egypt, Libya and Saudi Arabia are happy to buy Israeli technology given their apparent anti-Israeli rhetoric (at least a couple of years ago). Perhaps not many know about these origins as Narus had 'morphed' from an Israeli company into an American one – not that these countries do not have other, under-the-table deals with the official enemy.

Enabling repression

Two days into the Egyptian uprising, the Egyptian security forces arrested a number of dissidents and opposition figures, who were accused of inciting and organising the 'riots'. It is suspected that the Narus technology may have enabled the Egyptian authorities to monitor their online and mobile phone activities. Similarly, several Tunisian bloggers and dissident Internet users were arrested at the beginning of the Tunisian uprising earlier that month, though the methods used by the Tunisian authorities (hacking, phishing, etc.) appear to have been less sophisticated (see here). Similar methods were also used in Iran during the 2009 mass protests, where truckloads of cyber dissidents were tracked down, imprisoned and, in some cases, disappeared.

Narus takes pride in its lucrative agreement with Egyptian integration and communications company Giza Systems, which is one of the main IT suppliers to the Middle East market (see here). In 2006, Giza Systems signed a multi-million contract with Narus to install its bugging and blocking software on networks in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia and even Palestine.

Narus also brags that its software can monitor and block Voice over IP (VoIP) programmes, such as Skype, instant messaging software, email traffic, peer-to-peer networks and many other Internet protocols. Internet providers in China and the Middle East are known to have been using such technology to block VoIP calls, which are seen as financially harmful to telecom companies.

Narus insist that its products are "designed to comply [with] all of the laws in all of the countries we ship to... Many of our customers have built their own applications. We have no idea what they do." It is highly unlikely, of course, that the company would not know how its customers use its technology given that many of its innovations are described as "driven by customer demand" (see here, for example). Yet, the exact nature and of Narus's involvement in state repression against dissidents and civilians in Egypt and elsewhere, and the nature of the crimes that flow from the company's products, need a proper investigation to establish a case against its complicity in these alleged crimes, such as facilitation or aiding or abetting.

'Voda-Mubarak-fone'

Soon after the start of the Egyptian uprising, most Internet access in the country was disabled and text messaging blocked. On 28th January, mobile phone calls from most networks were also suspended in selected areas, only to be restored a day later, but SMS was still halted. This, of course, made it harder for protesters to communicate and get information out. Again, this would not have been possible without the complicity of telecom companies such as Vodafone and France Telecom.

Vodafone claimed in a statement that the Egyptian authorities "have the technical capability to close our network, and if they had done so it would have taken much longer to restore services to our customers." However, many industry analysts doubt that there is such a 'kill switch' (see here, for example). It is more plausible that profit-driven companies like Vodafone would simply comply with whatever the authorities want – even if it is unlawful - in order to protect their business and market position, no matter what the political implications of such actions might be.

It has also transpired (see here and here, for example) that Vodafone and other mobile phone operators in Egypt had been sending their customers text messages supporting Mubarak's crumbling regime and attacking anti-Mubarak protesters. A message on 1st February read: "The Armed Forces urge Egypt's loyal men to confront the traitors and the criminals and to protect our families, our honour and our precious Egypt." Another text announced the time and location of a demonstration in support of president Mubarak.

Panicking about the possible 'reputational damage' this may cause, Vodafone gave rather conflicting statements, first saying the company did not write the messages itself, then that it was forced to do so, then that the Egyptian government had abused its network. On its website, the company claims that "under the emergency powers provisions of the Telecoms Act, the Egyptian authorities can instruct the mobile networks of Mobinil, Etisalat and Vodafone to send messages to the people of Egypt." Interestingly, text messaging was still disabled throughout this time. The network was apparently switched back on just long enough for the government messages to be sent out to subscribers.

This is not the first time that Vodafone has been embroiled in pro-government, anti-people actions in Egypt, leading to calls for its boycott. Following the Mahalla uprising in 2008 (the so-called 'food riots'), the company handed over communications data to the Egyptian authorities to "help identify rioters" (see here). Vodafone is the world's largest mobile phone operator. It started operating in Egypt in 1998 and has over 28 million mobile phone customers in the country now, making it one of its most profitable 'emerging markets'.

Made in USA

Another, more obvious case of corporate complicity in the Egyptian regime's crimes against the mass uprising has been the use of US-made tear gas against protesters. Many Egyptian and foreign journalists and bloggers have reported, and posted pictures of, several canisters being recovered from the streets of Cairo bearing the label 'Made in U.S.A.' (see here and here, for example). An investigation by Egyptian independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm also found that some of the tear gas canisters used on protesters on 4th February had surpassed their 2008 expiration date (see here).

According to some canister labels, pictures of which were posted on various blogs and websites, the tear gas is produced by Combined Systems International. A few inches long, blue and silver, the canister carries a warning label followed by the initials 'CSI', then 'Made in the U.S.A.' Similar canisters were found on Tunisia streets during its uprising last month.

Combined Systems is a US arms manufacturer based in Jamestown, Pennsylvania that "supports military forces and law enforcement agencies around the world." CSI tear gas has famously been used by Israeli forced against Palestinian civilians. In April 2009, a Combined Systems Model 4431 CS Powder Barricade Penetrating Projectile high-velocity shell killed Bassem Abu Rahma (see here) during a protest in Bil'in. The primary purpose of these canisters is to penetrate barriers, with a secondary function of releasing a chemical gas - they clearly should not be used for crowd dispersal (see this report by B'Tselem).

For more on CSI and the use of its allegedly 'non-lethal' weapons in Palestine, see this Corporate Watch article. For further reading on corporate complicity in the Egyptian regime's crimes, see this article by Amy Goodman. See also this Platform blog on BP's suuport for Mubarak's dictatorship.