California-based Blue Coat Systems is the latest western software company to have its name associated with Internet censorship in the Middle East.
According to the Washington Post, Telecomix, a group founded by Swedish hackers in 2006, was the first to report that the company’s software is being used by the Syrian regime in its efforts to limit access to sites used by Syrian activists. The report has gotten the attention of US officials, who are said to be investigating the matter.
While according to a statement from Blue Coat, no sales were made directly to the Syrian government, it is possible that a third party was involved. With the software available for sale on eBay, unregulated use of the software is easier than ever.
Blue Coat’s software is meant to be used as a means of protection, but at the same time, it can also be used as a monitoring and censoring tool to clamp down on online freedom of expression.
In Syria’s case, it is believed that Blue Coat is being used to limit access to specific sites as well as social media like Twitter and Facebook, in addition to being used to monitor the online communication of Syrian activists.
Blue Coat’s website provides a description of what its software is capable of doing:
With the Web Application Policy Engine, IT administrators can set and enforce policies by operation, application or category, enabling IT administrators to manage the data loss and employee productivity risks associated with social media and other web-based applications.
In the hands of a business or company, Blue Coat is a software suite used to ensure productivity. In the hands of an autocratic government, it becomes a tool of oppression.
Blue Coat is certainly not the first, and most likely won’t be the last western software company whose name will come up in the list of tools being used to clamp down on Internet use by autocratic regimes. Canadian company Netsweep is one such company whose name has been associated with the several countries in the Middle East, and French company Amesys has had its name associated with Libyan censorship, while others have been known to even give discounts in exchange for bug tracking.
Without any sort of regulation, software created like companies like Blue Coat Systems continue to fall into the wrong hands, there is no limit to how regimes like that of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad can continue to control and monitor Internet use in their countries.
Pratap Chatterjee of London’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism, who reported on the issue, told the Washington Post, “A lot of the manufacturers don’t know or don’t want to know who’s buying their technology because they could be subject to fines or prosecution in their countries.”