by Tom Burghardt
Following revelations by Bloomberg Markets Magazine that a spun-off intelligence unit of German electronics giant Siemens, Trovicor, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Perusa Partners Fund 1 LP, a shadowy investment firm headquartered in Guernsey, had sold surveillance gear to Bahrain deployed against the pro-democracy movement, it has since emerged that Microsoft established an IT training program for Ministry of Justice and Interior officials in Tunisia.
A secret State Department cable published by the whistleblowing web site WikiLeaks, 06TUNIS2424, “Microsoft Inks Agreement with GOT,” 22 September 2006, noted that “during the Microsoft Government Leaders Forum in South Africa July 11-12, the GOT and the Microsoft Corporation signed a partnership agreement that provides for Microsoft investment in training, research, and development, but also commits the GOT to using licensed Microsoft software.”
The export of high-tech products, included software suites employed for spying on political dissidents, are said to be closely regulated under U.S. law to prevent abuse by repressive governments.
However, as Amnesty International disclosed nearly a decade ago, “There are almost no legal or regulatory requirements amongst the G8 states for the inclusion of international human rights or humanitarian law content in the various military, security, and police force training services that they provide to states in all world regions.”
According to investigators, “Even where human rights criteria are referred to in laws governing arms export and foreign military and security aid, they are often loosely interpreted.”
“Instead,” analysts averred, “it is short term profit making and political advantage that guide the bulk of the international arms trade,” and as noted above in the Bahraini example, the transfer of dual-use surveillance kit figured prominently in the suppression of of pro-democracy protests. (emphasis added)
Not much has changed since 2003 when that report was issued. Indeed, sweetheart deals which hand over source code in exclusive arrangements with human rights abusers are the norm, not the exception, especially where it concerns America’s “War on Terror” allies.
In January, during the opening round of the Arab Spring, a pro-democracy uprising by Tunisian citizens overturned the U.S.-allied dictatorship of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali who was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia.
With high unemployment, staggering state corruption, repression and police violence, the long-simmering revolt was kick-started when an unemployed university graduate, Mohammed Bouazizi, an itinerant vegetable seller, set himself on fire in front of a government office to protest the confiscation of his stock by local police. Bouazizi died January 4. Authorities later claimed he did not have a “permit” to sell vegetables.
Initially caught off guard by events, the U.S. government had been fully apprised of this state of affairs by diplomats. A 17 July 2009 cable, 09TUNIS492, “Troubled Tunisia: What Should We Do?,” informed us that “many Tunisians are frustrated by the lack of political freedom and angered by First Family corruption, high unemployment and regional inequities.”
An autocratic though nominally “secular” regime, “the GOT brooks no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Instead, it seeks to impose ever greater control, often using the police.”
“Despite Tunisia’s economic and social progress,” the State Department cheekily observed, “its record on political freedoms is poor. Tunisia is a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems.”
A “police state” tailor made for CIA “War on Terror” operations.
As Amnesty International pointed out in 2008, “Abdellah al-Hajji and Lotfi Lagha, two of 12 Tunisians held by the US authorities in Guantánamo Bay, were returned to Tunisia in June. They were arrested on arrival and detained at the State Security Department of the Interior Ministry, where they alleged they were ill-treated and forced to sign statements” claiming they belonged to a “terrorist organization.”
Al-Hajji told human rights’ investigators that “he was deprived of sleep, slapped in the face and threatened that his wife and daughters would be raped.” This of course, is standard operating procedure for close U.S. allies.
While claiming the Tunisian government “can point to some progress … for every step forward there has been another back, for example the recent takeover of important private media outlets by individuals close to President Ben Ali.”
Despite misgivings, the Obama administration, like the Bush government before it, recommended “a more pragmatic approach … whereby we would speak to the Tunisians very clearly and at a very high level about our concerns regarding Tunisia’s democracy and human rights practices, but dial back the public criticism.”
Noting the set-up in Tunis and the dim prospects for democratic transformation, “of greatest interest to the GOT would be increased engagement on economic issues, i.e., on increasing bilateral trade and investment, as well as the provision of technical assistance, especially involving technology transfer.”
Bingo! Nothing like advancing U.S. interests by fattening the bottom line of American corporations eager to sell high-tech spy gear, and provide the requisite training to spooks–just as they do here in the heimat.
And if said U.S. corps, like their European counterparts (can you say BAE) need to sweeten the deal with generous dollops of cash to officials from special, i.e., untraceable accounts on Gibraltar, Latvia or Malta, well, there’s an app for that too!
A 06 June 2008 cable, 08TUNIS679, “Corruption in Tunisia: What’s Yours Is Mine,” informed us: “According to Transparency International’s annual survey and Embassy contacts’ observations, corruption in Tunisia is getting worse. Whether it’s cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali’s family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants. Beyond the stories of the First Family’s shady dealings, Tunisians report encountering low-level corruption as well in interactions with the police, customs, and a variety of government ministries.”
Continuing, the secret cable averred that “President Ben Ali’s extended family is often cited as the nexus of Tunisian corruption.” As with other close U.S. regional allies, including rulers of the former president’s new “home,” Saudi Arabia, the Ben Ali entourage was “often referred to as a quasi-mafia.”
“An oblique mention of ‘the Family’ is enough to indicate which family you mean. Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage, and many of these relations are reported to have made the most of their lineage.”
Apparently, so too did Microsoft; the 2006 cable noted that “the agreement is a win-win for Microsoft.”
As part of the deal, “Microsoft will help the GOT to upgrade and modernize its computers and networking capabilities. In turn, the GOT agreed to purchase twelve thousand licenses to update government computers with official Microsoft software, rather than the pirated versions that have been commonly used, according to one Microsoft employee.”
But the agreement did far more than “normalize” business relations between the Redmond, Washington software giant and the Tunisian government.
“The agreement also touches on internet security. Through a program on cyber criminality, Microsoft will train government officials in the Ministries of Justice and Interior on how to use computers and the internet to fight crime.”
But as Bloomberg Markets Magazine revealed in their Bahrain investigation, overt references to “cyber criminality” more often than not mean delivering political dissidents straight into the clutches of state security thought police.
“As part of this program,” the cable reads, “Microsoft will provide the GOT with original source codes for its programs.”
“When asked by EconOff whether Microsoft had any concerns about releasing its source codes, [Microsoft Tunisia Director General Salwa] Smaoui replied that the source codes would only be available to a small number of officials.”
Which ones? Why “Justice” and “Interior” ministry officials of course, securocrats charged with spying upon Tunisian citizens. Those deemed insufficiently “loyal” would face the grim prospect of detention and torture for having the temerity to cross swords with the country’s “quasi-mafia.”
Agreements such as those struck by Microsoft however, were neither “mistakes” nor a misguided strategy stitched together by an over-eager sales department. Rather, insider deals between giant corporations and authoritarian regimes are part and parcel of a business model which strives to increase all-important market share come hell or high water.
Examples abound. While Bloomberg Markets lifted the sheet on Siemens dirty deals with Bahrain, Narus (an Israeli firm founded by veterans of Israel’s secretive signals intelligence Unit 8200, and later bought by Boeing), sold highly-intrusive deep packet inspection tools to the state-owned Telecom Egypt.
Back in January, Free Press Campaign Director Timothy Carr disclosed that when the Mubarak regime pulled the plug on internet and cell phone service earlier this year, Egypt’s security services also had “the ability to spy on Internet and cell phone users, by opening their communication packets and reading their contents.”
“Narus,” Carr wrote, provided “Egypt Telecom with Deep Packet Inspection equipment (DPI), a content-filtering technology that allows network managers to inspect, track and target content from users of the Internet and mobile phones, as it passes through routers on the information superhighway.”
As civil liberties watchdogs, researchers and whistleblowers revealed, Narus is the same shadowy firm that sold it’s internet “Semantic Traffic Analyzer,” the Narus STA 6400, to the National Security Agency.
AT&T whistleblower Mark Kline first revealed in documents he handed over to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), that Narus equipment was installed in “secret rooms” co-managed by AT&T and the NSA across the United States and powered illegal driftnet spying programs by both the Bush and Obama administrations.
As James Bamford pointed out in The Shadow Factory, “at the heart of the Intercept Suite is the NarusInsight computer, an enormously powerful machine capable of scanning the fastest transmission lines of the Internet, OC-192 cables that carry 10 gigabytes per second–10 billion bits of information per second.”
“It can also carry,” Bamford wrote, almost 130,000 simultaneous telephone conversations.”
According to a sales pitch by the firm, “NarusInsight is the leading traffic intelligence system for capturing, analyzing and correlating IP traffic in real time.”
“In all cases and for all solutions,” we’re told that “Narus employs a four-phase approach to traffic intelligence: 1. Monitor traffic from the network through the application layer. 2. Create actionable knowledge. 3. Analyze at macro or micro level. 4. Take informed action based on business and operational policies.”
Indeed, “any number of links, at any speed, with any routing architecture, can be simultaneously monitored.”
Undeterred by charges of widespread corruption and police violence, Cablegate file 10TUNIS104, “Tunisia: Communication Technologies Minister,” penned 09 February 2010 by U.S. Ambassador Gordon Gray, tells us that “In a February 5 courtesy call by the Ambassador, Minister of Communication Technologies Mohamed Naceur Ammar explained the central role of information and communications technology (ICT) in Tunisia’s development strategy.”
“The Minister made a pitch,” Gray averred, “for greater U.S. investment in Tunisia’s ICT sector and was pleased to learn details of the imminent visit of a U.S. trade delegation to Tunisia that will include major U.S. ICT firm Motorola.”
“Tunisia intends to become an ICT platform for the Mediterranean region by attracting investment, boosting education, and liberalizing the sector,” Gray wrote. Critically, “Tunisia’s investment code, he said, provides incentives to potential investors, while its education system is linked to a growing number of techno-parks that match research to market needs.”
As readers are well aware, market “liberalization” is code for the sell-off of public assets, often at fire sale prices that enrich corrupt officials whilst gouging the public as prices for basic commodities, including telecommunication products, skyrocket.
“In response to the Ambassador’s question on how the United States and Tunisia could deepen ICT cooperation, Ammar highlighted the need for business investment in Tunisia’s ICT sector.”
Gray replied “that in addition to the U.S. companies already active in the sector, including Microsoft, Cisco, HP, and IBM, a U.S. trade delegation scheduled for February 15 would include representatives from Motorola.”
“On the internet,” the Ambassador wrote, “his appointment was greeted with some irony among Tunisian dissident bloggers: ‘Ammar’ is the nickname, analogous to ‘Big Brother,’ long used by bloggers in referring the Government of Tunisia’s wide-ranging internet censorship apparatus, headed by the Ministry of Communications Technologies.”
Nonetheless, Ambassador Gray said that “university exchanges and training programs for Tunisian officials … could fall under the 2004 U.S.-Tunisia Science and Technology Agreement.”
Similar exchanges and training programs at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (rebranded the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001), led to widespread human rights abuses across Latin America.
As SOA Watch points out, amongst those targeted by graduates schooled in the dark arts of “military intelligence and interrogation tactics” are the usual suspects: “educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor.”
In the Middle East, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) disclosed that the International Military Education and Training (IMET) and the Joint Combined Exercises and Training (JCET) programs “may be improving the ability of a government or army to repress its own civilian population.”
Indeed, “training foreign militaries in lethal tactics in order to gain access to these countries, sometimes called buying influence, is presumably thought to be in the realm of ‘national security interests’.”
Today, such training entails the use of highly-intrusive technologies sold to repressive states by Western companies for the maintenance of the capitalist status quo, tasks eagerly sought by technology giants such as Microsoft.
Between 2000-2010, the Government Contracts Won web portal reported that Microsoft pulled down some 284 contracts worth a total of $230,656,233 from the Defense Department.
While small potatoes in comparison to Narus’s parent company, Boeing Corporation’s $8,400,115,000 in government contracts according to Washington Technology, the firm’s commercial products figure prominently in National Security State depredations.
As CNET News reported earlier this month, “Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 software can transmit your location without your explicit permission.”
“An analysis by Samy Kamkar says that the Camera application sends the device’s location–complete with latitude and longitude, a unique ID, and nearby Wi-Fi access points–to Microsoft even when the user has not given the app permission to do so.”
In July, CNET News disclosed that “Microsoft has collected the locations of millions of laptops, cell phones, and other Wi-Fi devices around the world and makes them available on the Web.”
According to researchers, “the vast database available through Live.com publishes the precise geographical location, which can point to a street address and sometimes even a corner of a building, of Android phones, Apple devices, and other Wi-Fi enabled gadgets.”
Moves by the secret state to compile geolocational directories of cell phone users, ready made databases perfect for hauling in political dissidents as was done in Bahrain, are not solely the province of repressive, Middle Eastern governments.
Is any wonder then, that Western high-tech firms do their part to “keep us safe” by throttling our privacy or fail to notice the screams of those victimized by the brutal efficiency of their products?
Tom Burghardt is a researcher and activist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to publishing in Covert Action Quarterly and Global Research, an independent research and media group of writers, scholars, journalists and activists based in Montreal, he is a Contributing Editor with Cyrano’s Journal Today. His articles can be read on Dissident Voice, The Intelligence Daily, Pacific Free Press, Uncommon Thought Journal, and the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks. He is the editor of Police State America: U.S. Military “Civil Disturbance” Planning, distributed by AK Press and has contributed to the new book from Global Research, The Global Economic Crisis: The Great Depression of the XXI Century.