As the world looks on in horror at the bloody end to the siege of Aleppo, a report from campaign group Privacy International has revealed the extent to which EU-based companies were complicit in the growth of Syria’s surveillance state.
Today, the troops of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, supported by Russian forces, are wreaking death and destruction on one of their own historic cities and its people. But a decade ago, in the wake of the Arab Spring movement which was sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa, Assad was already putting the tools in place for such suppression.
According to the report from Privacy International, entitled ‘Open Season: Building Syria’s Surveillance State’, from 2007 to 2012, a Government-owned Syrian company called Syria Communications Establishment (STE) put out a tender for technology to monitor online activity. It specified a desire to be able to monitor email, web browsing, chat rooms, VOIP calls, the use of VPNs, and plenty more besides.
The tender specified that “The system must be centralized and [have] the ability to monitor all the networks which use data communication services inside Syrian territories… All monitoring activities should be done undetected.”
Leaked records, on which the Privacy International report is based indicate that a firm called Advanced German Technology (AGT), which was founded in Berlin, but based in Dubai, was the primary middleman in subsequent deals.
In 2007, AGT and RCS Labs, an Italian surveillance-tech company developed a proof-of-concept for a central Syrian surveillance system. Then in 2009, a further project intended to tap the two international cables which provided the internet links to Aleppo and the capital city Damascus, was set up by AGT and a South African-based company called VASTech.
Once the Arab Spring reached Syria, and a civil war erupted in the country, it was these very surveillance tools which the Assad regime was able to use to spy on opponents and rebels.
Online censorship ambitions
In addition to these extensive online surveillance programmes, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad also wanted to be able to censor online content, just as many of their neighbouring countries were. Once again, a tender was issued by STE and yet again it was AGT who got involved, attempting to set up a deal involving the French company Amesys
Once again, following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, the Assad regime was able to use these tools to censor internet content, thereby being able to restrict information flow to his opponents as well as control propaganda materials reaching his own people.
No due diligence
It should be noted that in response to a report run by Motherboard, AGT has insisted that it never broke any international laws or sanctions in providing such equipment to Syria.
This seems to be true, as whilst the US had some sanctions in place, nothing was put in place by the EU until late 2011, after the Civil War was already underway.
But a former AGT employee told Privacy International that “there was absolutely no due diligence on who they [AGT] were supplying to”. In other words, AGT were a business willing to sell to anyone, regardless of the potential consequences of this type of technology falling into the wrong hands.
It would be wrong to say that the sale of such surveillance technology to the Assad regime is responsible for the current situation in Aleppo.
But there is no doubt that his ability to get hold of such technology strengthened his regime and was a contributing factor in his ability to hold on to power in Syria against huge opposition from both his own people and the international community.
It is easy to play down the impact of online restriction, especially for regimes that are keen to implement it. But the Syria picture, which has been painted so vividly by this new Privacy International report is a clear indication of wider implications such technology can reap on innocent people.