This article was published on November 10, 2011

Is a British firm helping Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior monitor online activity?

Is a British firm helping Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior monitor online 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]

According to information uncovered by a Bahraini blogger who goes by the name Chan’ad BahrainiOlton, a British intelligence firm may be assisting the Bahrain government in keeping tabs on activists and dissidence in the country.

Olton, a London based company founded by a former intelligence analyst in the UK navy specializing in corporate intelligence consultancy, is known to have worked with Bahrain’s government, but the nature of that work has been questioned.

At first glance, Olton’s description of the kind of its services it does is vague enough to make it sound equally sinister and harmless at the same time:

Olton provide intelligence across a wide range of corporate and government sectors, meeting the ‘need to know’ with reliable, actionable insight. Our investigation and analysis is thorough, timely and effective.

Our aim is to unearth relevant information to underpin the best decision making, whether over complex or single issues. We identify the critical factors that reveal risks and opportunities, so leading to a better understanding of the whole picture than an adversary.

The Bahrain Tender Board posts reports of all tender awards, and the document for April clearly lists Olton. According to the report, Olton was contracted by Bahrain’s Economic Development Board for two months, to “to develop an electronic system to track international media.” It sounds harmless enough.

Digging a little deeper, Chan’ad found a puzzling recommendation on the LinkedIn profile of Olton’s Managing Director for the Middle East and Africa, Mark C. The recommendation comes courtesy of none other than Yousef BuHazza, a member of Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior.

Did Olton develop a similar electronic system to track more than just international media?

Olton’s services and technology are described on the company’s site:

At Olton, we are world leaders in ‘Open Source’ intelligence retrieval: the collection and analysis of unclassified, publicly available information….This is largely due to ORA, Olton’s own, patent pending technology: the first complete solution for managing investigations amongst the vast quantities of information available on the web and other public sources.

Olton’s ORA software platform is unique. With its ‘web-trawling’ technology and methodology, it is capable of producing considerably more usable, quality data, because it goes far beyond publicly available search engines. This allows our researchers to delve deeper into many databases, subscription sources and obscure corners of the internet, simultaneously.

ORA uses not only Olton’s own patent technology, but also integrates Microsoft and Dell technology in the mix.

The site also clearly states:

“We apply our expertise to identify, monitor and analyse relevant media information, thus freeing communications teams to develop and execute winning reputation management strategies…

Olton achieves mastery across the traditional broadcast, print and standard online media. Significantly, we are also leaders in understanding the influential, modern ‘Web 2.0’ media, such as Twitter, Facebook and web forums, and their ever-morphing variations.”

Chan’ad adds:

Olton launched and heavily promoted its ORA software platform this February at IDEX in Abu Dhabi — the largest weapons and defence exhibition in the Middle East.

He also points to a tweet believed to be about Olton, posted at the time of the exhibition by a former reporter for the UAE’s newspaper, The National:

He also uncovered the fact that the Olton founder filed a patent for their technology in 2008, with one particularly worrying paragraph:

Security agencies may apply this capability to their efforts to detect and track insurgent activity, and provide a mechanism for operatives to pool and share their knowledge in a secure and controlled way.

As Chan’ad says, none of this is conclusive, but there are far too many question marks in the information provided. Could all of the information uncovered be sheer coincidence?

Western companies continue to be implicated in investigations of governments clamping down on their citizens’ freedom of speech, whether in Libya, Syria, Tunisia and beyond.

While outright censorship of websites has long been known to be practiced in Bahrain, could this be the first hint that, like its counterparts, Bahrain has also been using western technology to track down and arrest anti-government protesters?

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