Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 19, 2020

Many U.S. firms sell spyware illegally

November 12, 2015

By TONY WU Senior Staff Writer

So far the war in Syria had claimed at least 200,000 lives. Foreign powers have accused the Assad regime of utilizing tactics such as barrel bombing in civilian areas, which are condemned by the U.N. In addition the U.S. recently discovered that the Syrian government is using illegally-obtained American equipment to spy on potential targets.

Two men, Ayman Ammar and Rashid Albuni, were accused of smuggling $1.8 million worth of software from Blue Coat Systems, based in California, to Syria. The company focused on the development of business assurance technologies, which include programs to block viruses, surveillance and censorship. Ammar and Albuni bought the equipment under addresses in countries, such as Turkey, where U.S. regulations permit the export of surveillance software, and then delivered the software to Syria using other companies.

Technology has been sold in the past to organizations that violate human rights, in countries such as China, Iraq and Burma. A major obstacle in preventing these sales is the dual-use nature of the programs.

The software sold to oppressive regimes is also used by law enforcement organizations throughout the world. Surveillance technology can prevent violence and acts of terrorism, and it can monitor social media and disrupt communication by political dissidents.

To address this issue, in 2013 the Obama administration signed the Wassenaar Arrangement, which restricted the sale of advanced surveillance programs to nations with human rights violations. The arrangement, originally constructed to demand greater transparency for military exports, was modified in December 2013 to include the sale of surveillance software.

However some criticize the resulting agreement for being poorly written and for banning products that can protect activist communications from governments.

Many companies have also willingly helped repressive regimes exploit dual-use technologies. Many businesses that specialize in lawful interceptions produce software and hardware that can be used to spy on individuals. This equipment is sold both domestically, to organizations such as the police, and abroad.

With increasing surveillance, activists worry about their rights and their ability to change their governments. An Ethiopian immigrant recently filed a lawsuit in which he claimed that the Ethiopian government gained access into his computer. The Washington Times reports that court records show that Ethiopia requested surveillance software from at least two corporations.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The News-Letter.

News-Letter Special Editions