On January 25th, 2011, demonstrations erupted in cities across Egypt. Eighteen days later one of the world’s most-entrenched dictators was forced from power.
In the Egyptian uprising, digital technologies were used as both a catalyst for the revolution as well as a tool of repression. The events in Egypt, like others of the so-called “Arab Spring,” is complex, nuanced and deeply entangled with the various forces who have a stake in the region’s geopolitical future. A look at the Egyptian security forces’ efforts to police the uprising with the aid of digital surveillance and censorship technologies shines a particularly strong light on the intersection of the former (and most-likely current) regime’s interests and those of the US government, as well as U.S. private contractors. This also provides an example of the increasingly dangerous terrain in which these new channels of communication place activists.
An online revolution?
“We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.” -Tweet from an anonymous Egyptian activist
When the first “Day of Anger” was organized in Egypt following the Tunisian uprising, word was largely spread across the country by a series of Facebook event pages. Because Egyptian television and radio were state-controlled, the internet became a means to publicize the demonstrations and evade state censorship. As a result, the Egyptian and other Arab uprisings have largely been described as a series of “Twitter” or “Facebook” revolutions. Implied by these descriptions is that these American-based social networking websites have manifested as a force for global democracy, allowing repressed peoples to find each other and network in ways which were previously impossible or too dangerous under authoritarian regimes. While it’s undeniable that social networking was a prominent tool in the uprisings, it is an oversimplification to say it was the catalyst in the mobilizations and overlooks the conditions and access of the majority of Arab participants.
Actually there were real limits to the reach of these technologies. As one Egyptian organizer reflected on why mass text-messaging and flyering was utilized over simply online organizing, “Reaching working-class Egyptians was not going to happen through the Internet and Facebook.” And while the initial calls for protests may have come from tech-savvy middle-class activists, it took millions to overwhelm the security state and bring down Mubarak. For these numbers to reach the street more traditional forms of networking and organizing took place.
In many instances it was not the technology of activists that brought people to the streets, but that of the Mubarak regime. On January 28th, 2011, internet and cellphone services were cut in a desperate attempt to stop the escalating protests. But the consequences of this action actually increased mobilizations. As Yale graduate student Navid Hassanpour wrote in his study, “Media Disruption Exacerbates Revolutionary Unrest”:
The disruption of cellphone [sic] coverage and Internet on the 28th exacerbated the unrest in at least three major ways. It implicated many apolitical citizens unaware of or uninterested in the unrest; it forced more face-to-face communication, i.e., more physical presence in streets; and finally it effectively decentralized the rebellion on the 28th through new hybrid communication tactics, producing a quagmire much harder to control and repress than one massive gathering in Tahrir.
In fact, it’s hard to believe the Egyptian uprising would have succeeded had organizing been limited to online social networks. The real key to its success was the expansion of involvement to other actors such as the country’s militant industrial labor movement or the Muslim Brotherhood’s rank-and-file activists–two of many such groupings not known for their use of digital technologies.
Censorship, Surveillance and Policing in the Arab Uprisings
While digital censorship may have in some ways catalyzed Egypt’s protests, it doesn’t mean there were not dire consequences for activists. Surveillance and the resulting detentions of those perceived as central organizers of the uprising along with widespread censorship of news and communication formulated one of the key strategies of repression employed by Mubarak’s regime. The decision to cut off communication technology could have just as easily had disastrous effects on mobilization had people not used alternative means of organization. The authorities’ ability to so easily disable these services was as a direct result of access to sophisticated Western technology. Likewise, many organizers were quickly arrested–or worse, disappeared–in the days following the initial demonstrations, largely thanks to digital surveillance technologies operated by the government and supplied by U.S. private contractors.
While the U.S. government eventually lent its support to the pro-democracy protests, its longtime support for Mubarak and its massive aid to the Egyptian military highlighted the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy. This was only made increasingly clear when the surveillance and monitoring of activists by security forces was largely made possible by technology provided by US contractors under the tacit approval of the U.S. government. Most notably, the company Narus–started by Israeli security experts, and now a Boeing subsidiary–had sold the Egyptian government what are known as “Deep Packet Inspection” devices, which allow for monitoring and recording internet traffic including e-mail, website visits, online chats, as well as text messages.
Additionally, Deep Packet Inspection enables geographic location and tracking. Now-famous Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim–a Google employee who set up one of the largest Facebook pages for the “Day of Anger”–was arrested on January 27th for his online activity, and imprisoned for eleven days before an international campaign resulted in his release. His arrest and many others resulted directly from government tracking of online data enabled by surveillance technologies supplied by companies like Narus.
Meanwhile, Elsewhere in the Region… The Surveillance Industry Thrives
While the U.S. government was quick to champion certain uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa as a triumph of democracy it has failed to acknowledge its complicity in the repression of activists in countries where the uprisings have failed, most notably Syria and Bahrain. In these instances we see two very distinct types of assistance coming from the U.S.: willing and unintended.
In Bahrain the crackdown on protesters was willingly supported by the U.S. in the forms of decades of military aid, tacit approval of direct Saudi military assistance, and conscious diplomatic silence on human rights abuses. Also significant were repressive technologies supplied by Western companies such as the German-Finnish partnership of Nokia Siemens, which is also a player in Egypt. This backing of the Bahraini monarchy was seen by the U.S. as a strategic gamble to maintain a government friendly to its interests in the region.
In Syria, however, U.S. complicity in the crushing of protests is a bit more ambiguous, and may have actually weakened a desired outcome. While it clearly fears what might follow the stability of the Assad dynasty, there is definitely no love lost between the U.S. and the Iran-, Hezbollah-, Hamas-, etc.-allied regime. But like in Egypt and Bahrain, Assad’s security services have relied on surveillance to monitor, arrest, and assassinate dissidents, especially in the early phases of Syria’s uprising prior to its militarization.
And that is where NetApp, a Sunnyvale, California-based tech company enters the picture. As detailed in Bloomberg’s excellent “Wired for Repression” series, which examines complicity between Western tech companies and authoritarian regimes, NetApp storage hardware and software is being used in a Syrian Internet surveillance project that was headed by Italian company Area SpA. Also involved is U.S.-based Blue Coat Systems Inc., whose technology filters websites. Separately, technology from the Irish company Cellusys Ltd. is currently aiding Syrian cellphone companies in blocking text messages.
The interests of these companies, however, have not necessarily matched those of the Obama administration, which has responded to the above by instituting new sanctions against those providing information technology to Syria (as well as Iran). But much of this technology is already in place, and deals between contractors and authoritarian states serving US interests are still perfectly legal, with no sanctions on the horizon.
Much of the security technology purchased by repressive regimes is sold at the Intelligence Support Systems expo, organized by the company TeleStrategies. Jerry Lucas, the president of TeleStrategies, denies companies have any responsibilities when it comes to how their products are used:
The surveillance systems that we discuss in our seminars are available all around the world. Do some countries use them to suppress certain political statements? Yes, probably. But it’s not my job to sort out who are the good and bad countries. That’s not our business, we’re not politicians.
It’s estimated the global industry for mass surveillance now brings in over $5 billion annually. This privatization of state surveillance projects across the globe has allowed for the U.S, to both publicly support the democratic uprisings against dictatorial regimes while also profiting off of their suppression.
Digital Resistance and Solidarity
While the Egyptian government attempted to use digital technologies as a way to repress the uprisings, networks of activists from around the world quickly mobilized in solidarity with the pro-democracy movement. Egypt’s decision to shut off Internet access in the country was unprecedented, and it was the first time in history that an entire country disconnected itself from the Internet. Telecomix, a decentralized organization of Internet activists, quickly organized to provide free fax numbers and dial-up internet access to activists in Egypt so they could publicize the events and demonstrations occurring across the country. Telecomix also plays a key role in exposing the business ties between repressive regimes and Western technology companies, most recently in Syria.
While uprisings and revolutions will always be about physical bodies in public spaces, technologies still remain an important tool in transmitting information and spreading news of repression. For example, in Syria, where attempts to organize protests on social networks were quickly hindered, information technologies have been important avenue for communicating with the outside world. The Tor Project, a free piece of software that allows users to anonymously connect to the internet and evade state surveillance, has been critically important in allowing activists to avoid identification and repression. The Tor Project, like Telecomix, is organized through the cooperation of programmers and activists from across the globe in hopes of assisting people’s movements. Having learned from earlier examples of surveillance and repression, Arab activists are using software like Tor with increasing frequency in order to hinder attempts to quell access to information and communication.
Like all technologies that came before them, digital-information technologies both provide activists with opportunities to communicate and network while also enabling new modes of repression, censorship, and surveillance. Whether these tools help or hinder global social movements and uprisings will depend on the participants’ understanding of these assets, and their abilities to adapt to efforts of state policing and control.