To mark World Day Against Cyber Censorship on 12 March, Reporters without Borders published a report targeting institutions that are deeply involved in cyber censorship, using national security as a pretext.
Last June, Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the surveillance methods used by the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the US National Security Agency (NSA). Although it is hardly news that countries such as China and Syria practice censorship and surveillance, it is perhaps surprising to learn that a number of national organs in more democratic countries are also indulging in such practices. This is however precisely what the explosive report Enemies of the Internet 2014 by Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters without Borders), published to mark World Day Against Cyber Censorship, reveals. The RSF report lists thirty-two institutions which the watchdog says are “at the heart of censorship and surveillance”, and highlights the lengths to which these bodies go to maintain security at the cost of fundamental rights. “What is worrying is that on the pretext of national protection, GCHQ and the NSA have used extensive espionage tactics, which we only found out about following Snowden’s revelations,” warned Grégoire Pouget, head of the New Media desk at RSF.
The dangers of mass surveillance
For example, “the NSA paid a US standards-setting organisation to lower encryption levels and arranged with a French company to leave backdoor security gaps in systems, which enabled NSA to hack a wide range of routers.” However hacking into systems and leaving security gaps amount to a “very short-term view of security,” argues Pouget, explaining: “If the NSA exploits a security flaw this exposes the flaw and in the long term it will be exploited by others.” RSF also points the finger at many other national agencies – e.g. in Colombia where a digital surveillance unit has been set up that has enabled the authorities to intercept 26,000 emails between members of the FARC revolutionary movement and international journalists; and in Tunisia, where a Technical Agency for Telecommunications has been established by decree without any consultation through the democratic process and without any accountability, in order to combat ‘information and communication crimes’. Moreover, it seems to be fairly common nowadays to enact laws designed to protect national security which encroach on people’s rights. In France, parliament has passed a Military Programming Law which authorises communications surveillance without a formal court order, the justification for such measures being national security, the preservation of France’s economic assets, and the fight against crime.
In the same vein, in Turkey, a recent amendment to the Internet Law “turns Internet Service Providers into instruments of censorship and surveillance, forcing them to join a new organisation that centralises demands for content blocking or removal. If they do not join and install the surveillance tools demanded by the authorities they will lose their licence”, says the report. However, such censorship is not limited to public policy organs. “Private companies also play a major role in surveillance and censorship on the Internet,” underlines Grégoire Pouget. Drawing attention to the dangers of mass surveillance, the report criticises the major role played by private companies that specialise in intercepting communications and blocking online content, “without which censorship and surveillance by bodies that are ‘enemies of the Internet’ would simply not be possible,” stresses the report. On the ‘enemies’ list we also find what RSF describes as ‘surveillance dealerships’, i.e. the three major international Arms trade fairs: ISS World, Technology Against Crime and Milipol. “These arms fairs, two out of the three of which were held in France in 2013, are closed to journalists,” Pouget points out. To bring greater control to these snooping technology marketplaces, the report recommends that the United Nations draft “an international convention on the export of Internet surveillance technology”.