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Digital Darkness: U.S., U.K. Companies Help Egyptian Regime Shut Down Telecommunications and Identify Dissident Voices

StoryFebruary 01, 2011
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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]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

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.

AMY GOODMAN: OK. C.W. Anderson, talk about Twitter. It’s been shut down. We know about this and Facebook, with the internet going down, but talk about the origins of Twitter.

C.W. ANDERSON: Sure. I mean, there’s been a lot of debate, I think, in the media about whether what we’re seeing in the Middle East and elsewhere is sort of a Twitter revolution. And I don’t think anyone would seriously call it that. You know, people make revolutions, not technology. But when you learn about the early days of Twitter, you can see why a service like Twitter would be useful for people trying to coordinate decentralized, large protest actions. Some of the people involved in the very early days of developing Twitter as a company were actually involved way back in 2004. I’m sure you remember the Republican National Conventions protests in New York and the DNC protests in Boston. Some of the people involved in the very early days of Twitter were very instrumental in helping set up SMS texting systems that allowed protesters to communicate with other protesters and also the media, and organize sort of spontaneous, decentralized actions in New York and in Boston. So, some of those people — it was called TXTMob. And Jeremy Scahill, working for your show, has written about the TXTMob service back in 2004. So, some of those folks doing that, hacking that technology in New York in 2004, ended up demonstrating technologies like that to the folks starting Twitter. And it’s not to say that radical activists created Twitter, but they certainly brought the ideas, the ideas of sort of these decentralized communications, to the folks who were setting up this larger company.

AMY GOODMAN: Right now, Twitter, of course, is down. And yet, the people going out in the streets — I mean, we now have reports of millions of people in Egypt out in the streets. So, as you said, ultimately, it’s not the technology; it’s the people.

C.W. ANDERSON: Well, you know, technologies don’t cause anything, but they help people do certain things more easily. So —

AMY GOODMAN: I was also very interested in President Obama saying, “We support freedom of press, freedom of assembly and freedom of the internet.” Yet, Tim Karr, the last time we were reporting on your organization, Free Press, it was about the FCC, the chair, Genachowski, not following through, President Obama not following through on a free and open internet.

TIM KARR: Right. The pledges that President Obama made while he was a candidate in the early — and in the early year, first year, of his administration to protect net neutrality weren’t fulfilled by his chairman at the FCC, Julius Genachowski, who in December passed what he called a net neutrality order, but which doesn’t fully protect wireless networks, doesn’t fully protect free speech on the internet as we know it. So that’s serious — we have some serious concerns about internet freedom here in the United States, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, China has blocked keyword searches for the word “Egypt.” C.W.?

C.W. ANDERSON: Yeah, I mean, you know, again, it’s this double-edged sword, right? Technology doesn’t create revolutions. It doesn’t create social protest. And it can be used to squelch social protest. But at the same time, it can, you know, sort of help these movements, help dissident groups coalesce and then act. If technology didn’t help us do that, then why would governments being trying to shut it down?

AMY GOODMAN: Google has launched a special service —

C.W. ANDERSON: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: — to allow people in Egypt to send Twitter messages by dialing a phone number and leaving a voicemail, as internet access remains cut off in the country.

C.W. ANDERSON: Yeah, and in fact, that idea of sort of text-to-voice talk was pioneered back during the Republican convention in 2004. So you see that these hacks, these technological hacks, have a long history.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, C.W. Anderson, assistant professor of communications at City University of New York, and thank you to Tim Karr, campaign director of Free Press. They’re having a big meeting around media democracy in Boston in April.

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