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This article was published on August 30, 2011

How far Gadhafi went to monitor Libya’s Internet activity

How far Gadhafi went to monitor Libya’s Internet activity
Nancy Messieh
Story by

Nancy Messieh

Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Fol Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Follow her on Twitter, her site or Google+ or get in touch at [email protected]

It’s no surprise that Libya’s former leader Gadhafi was using technology to spy on his people. As Libyan rebels take over his headquarters in Tripoli, we get to find out exactly how the government was keeping tabs on its citizens.

The Wall Street Journal was able to get a firsthand look at a room filled with secrets about secrets. A repository of training manuals bearing the name Amesys, a unit of a French tech firm, Bull SA.

The infiltrated emails found are chilling, and evidence of just how closely Gadhafi’s government was watching the opposition’s every move. One email tells its recipient that he is going into hiding and he will contact her by phone. It can only be guessed he knew they were reading every word he wrote.

Libyan officials are known to have met with various international companies to implement a filtering and monitoring system that ran deep through Libya’s Internet system. Boeing Co.’s Narus is reportedly one of those companies but a statement from the company reads:

There have been no sales or deployments of Narus technology in Libya.

Judging by the manuals in the elaborate Tripoli Internet monitoring center, one would guess that Amesys wasn’t so innocent. According to WSJ, in 2009, Amesys installed ‘deep packet inspection‘ technology for the Libyan government, giving them data mining, eavesdropping and censorship capabilities.

A manual available on the Amesys website indicates just what kind of technology Gadhafi was using to spy on his people. SMINT, a “tactical system based on Eagle core technology” can be used to:

“…record, store, analyze and display in real time information. This system is able to monitor a wide range of protocols, including mail, voice over IP (VoIP), webmail, chat, web browsing.”

The manual also makes direct reference to commonly used services like Hotmail, Yahoo Mail and Gmail, as well as MSN, Yahoo, AIM chat, and P2P file sharing.

Amesys may not have been the only international company putting monitoring technology in Gadhafi’s hands. Chinese telecom company ZTE Corp. is also said to have been involved, as well as VASTech SA, a South African firm, according to analysis of emails by The Wall Street Journal.

Access to a storage room filled with files containing information on Libyan activists’ online activity, provides a reminder of just how closely a government can watch its citizens if it chooses to. Among the emails stored in the room, some were sent to and from Human Rights Watch activist, Heba Morayef.

Speaking to The Next Web, Morayef said:

“All Libyans knew that there was widespread and consistent surveillance of anything resembling political activity, even at the most basic level.  What the Internet created was a false sense of security so people wouldn’t speak to me on the phone, but they would speak to me on Facebook, which was ironic because they knew there was was consistent Internet monitoring. There were cases of prisoners, called ‘Internet Prisoners,’ who had been arrested because of their activities on Facebook, or cases where people, especially journalists, who were called in for questioning because of stuff they had published on the internet.”

Despite the monitoring, according to Morayef, with public gatherings, NGOs and any other form of political activity practically impossible in Libya, the Internet was the last vestige of political organization left to the Libyans:

“As much as I hate to feed into the narrative that the Internet and social media led to the Arab Spring, in Libya, the Internet was literally the only place people could organize. They knew they were taking a risk but they also knew this was the only space that was available to them.”

Speaking about her own correspondence being monitored, Morayef is fairly certain that the Libyan authorities didn’t have a file on her, but rather her appearance in the surveillance was due to emails sent to Libyans both in Benghazi and abroad who were being monitored:

“My email turned up in the files of a journalist, an activist, in Benghazi, who I used to communicate with a lot and with the file of a Libyan activist abroad, which shows they were also monitoring Libyans abroad. He was running a site and once a year his site was hacked.”

Morayef describes Libya’s Internet monitoring as both sophisticated and rudimentary. While they had the capability of bringing down the servers of a Libyan activist living outside the country, they would also make their monitoring presence painfully known in the most bizarre and intentional of ways.

“I was friends on Facebook with one account called Abu Salim Victims [referring to the massacre that took place at the notorious Libyan prison.] One day I noticed that the account name had been changed to External Security Agency,” the Libyan Intelligence arm, “It’s targeted intimidation.”

The extent of the government’s monitoring system went far beyond Internet communication. VASTech is said to have given the government the capability of monitoring phone calls. According to a source in The Wall Street Journal, “They captured roughly 30 to 40 million minutes of mobile and landline conversations a month and archived them for years.”

It’s common knowledge that telephone conversations often had a third silent party listening in, and so Libyan activists turned to Skype as an alternative. While in Egypt, activists discovered that the Egyptian government had the capability of monitoring Skype conversations, it would appear that Libya didn’t have the same capabilities.

All of the companies were unable to comment on the statements about their involvement, citing client confidentiality.