If you are a nerd, you’ll like this post, because it’s about computers. But wait! — it’s also about sex, and stuff like that. (You practically can’t have sex these days unless you own at least a smartphone.) It’s about combating the corporations that send the most vulnerable of us to jail. So if you’re not a nerd, read on; the good stuff is coming.
Start with this spring. One fine day, Egypt’s Ministry of Interior announced that companies could bid to sell the country new technologies, for monitoring both posts and private conversations on the Internet. Of course, they only announced this to the companies, not the Egyptian public. (Would you send the rabbit a press release about the hunt?) However, the newspaper El-Watan managed to publish a leaked copy of the tender. It’s an anthology of a repressive government’s fantastic fears about cyberspace:
Unfortunately, increasing numbers of users of social networks spread destructive ideas … They threaten the security of society and prejudice its stability, with the growing influence of the “Internet” network and social networking sites, representing the beginning of the era of news transmitted without borders, and the consolidation of the concepts of democracy [apparently a bad thing] ….
Among the “destructive ideas” were:
Defamation and questioning of religion; regional, religious, ethnic or ideological incitement; publishing malicious rumors and intentionally misrepresenting facts; fabrication of charges; defamation and abuse of reputation; ridicule; sarcasm; slander; profanity; the call to escape community constraints; encouraging extremism, violence and rebellion; calling for demonstrations, sit-ins and illegal strikes; pornography, decadence, and lack of morality; teaching methods of making explosives and assault, chaos and riot tactics; calling for normalizing relations with enemies and circumventing the state’s strategy in this regard; fishing for honest mistakes … taking statements out of context; and spreading hoaxes and claims of miracles. [Presumably the government's own recent claim to have cured AIDS didn't fall in the last category.]
The State wanted systems that could search for keywords in both Arabic and English “and the flexibility to add any other language in the future,” across networks including “Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Google,” and phone apps such as Viber. They wanted to trawl for “terminology and vocabulary that are contrary to law and public morality or beyond the scope of custom and community ties” — guess what that might include.
You see how it is in Egypt. For most of us the Internet is 99% cat pictures and listicles. But the generals decode terrorist messages beneath the fur and fluff. (They also see those messages in cloth puppets. It’s a dangerous world.)
Ten Egyptian human rights groups condemned this move: “Privacy in the public sphere is necessary for a free and stable political life. Assaulting it is a sign of totalitarianism.” It takes more than that to stop the State. On September 17, BuzzFeed reported that an Egyptian company called See Egypt had won the contract. It would sell the government technology from its “sister company” Blue Coat, an Internet security firm based in Sunnyvale, California. This included Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology, which “enables geolocation, tracking, and extensive monitoring of internet traffic.” Ali Miniesy, the CEO of See Egypt, told BuzzFeed that “Our job as a company is to give them the system. I train the government how to run it and we give them the program. … [It] can also be used to penetrate WhatsApp, Viber, Skype, or other programs if needed.”
For those who aren’t nerds: Information you send over the Internet is usually bundled into what are called “packets.” It’s more efficient for Internet service providers to send these bundles than to transmit each keystroke separately. Some programs, though, can open these packets and inspect their contents. As Wired magazine says, “when a network provider engages in deep packet inspection, it does the equivalent of opening up letters in a postal depot, and reading the contents.” Repressive governments love this; it tells them exactly who to torture. DPI technology is big business. And Blue Coat is a major profiteer.
Denials launched at once, as if these guys were scared of something. Off in California, Blue Coat blasted out a statement: “See Egypt is a Blue Coat reseller, but is not otherwise affiliated with Blue Coat. See Egypt has assured us that they have not bid or resold Blue Coat products to the Egyptian government for any social network monitoring operation.” In Cairo, the Interior Ministry cried: “This piece of news is completely false,” a farrago aimed at “spreading mistrust, stirring public opinion and dismissing the Interior Ministry’s efforts and its sons’ sacrifices.” All these people claiming they didn’t even know each other, in such a coordinated way! The strangest response came from See Egypt. They posted a denial on their website:
The company has neither applied, installed, participated in tender for the supply of a system to MoI [Ministry of Interior] not trained or participated in training of MoI staff … The company is not a sister or affiliated company of “Blue Coat” The company is one among few resellers of “Blue Coat” products in Egypt and the region, The company is totally owned by Egyptian investors and operated and managed by Egyptian staff.
That screed stayed up for a few hours, maybe. Then they took the entire website down.
Really. This is 2014. Taking a website down is pointless; even cavedwellers like me know about Google Cache. I found the cached copies of the old website; I’ve saved all the pages as PDFs, and you can read them here. What a weird company! Notice several things. First, the entire website was in English, which is pretty remarkable in Egypt. Plenty of companies show off English sections of their sites, to look international and glossy; but the whole thing? (When a foreign reporter tried to call See Egypt the day after BuzzFeed‘s article appeared, the receptionist told him no one in the office could speak English. When I tried calling, I got no answer.)
But there are other fascinating facts. See Egypt says, for instance, that its name doesn’t stand for the Eye of Sauron at all. It means “Systems Engineering of Egypt,” which has the synthetic ring of a folk etymology, recently invented. The company says it’s 30 years old. It says it is a 250 million LE business (about $35 million US). It has an “Airports Division” — they sell “a complete line of airfield lighting and control, airport counters, waiting area furniture,” and oh, lots of “Computer Data Network” stuff. There’s a “Banking Systems Division.” Then there’s the Data Communication Division (“Since 1984 SEE is the Pioneer in the Egyptian Market in the design, implementation and support of Data Communication Infrastructure solutions”), and buried way down there, Internet “Security Services,” including some “milestones”:
- First Implementation of end-to-end Security solution in Banking Sector
- First Implementation of end-to-end Security solution in Public Sector
- First implementation of end-to-end Security solution in the Oil& Gas Sector
That sounds impressive. But why hide this light under a bushel?
More oddities. There’s a list of customers, which includes sixteen government ministries (MoI included), plus the Cabinet itself, the upper house of Parliament, and the Military Police. There’s a list of partners, which, yes, features Blue Coat Systems. There’s a letter from the company president (“See has been participating in building almost every large and sensitive application data network in this country”), which has his picture, but not his name. (His name is Abdel H. El-Sawy. And his Facebook page is here.)
What is this place, blandly opaque even by Egyptian standards? Let’s go back to Blue Coat Systems for a moment.
Blue Coat says it’s all about helping businesses keep vital info under wraps: “Blue Coat has a long history of protecting organizations, their data and their employees.” Bullshit. Blue Coat also sells technology to governments to let them crack data protection and hunt down dissent. Reporters Without Borders named it one of the worldwide Enemies of Internet, and said it “is best known for its Internet censorship equipment.” RSF writes that with Blue Coat’s DPI tech,
it is possible to look into every single Internet Protocol packet and subject it to special treatment based on content (censored or banned words) or type (email, VoIP or BitTorrent Protocol). DPI … makes single users identifiable and, in countries that flout the rule of law and violate human rights, often exposes them to arbitrary imprisonment, violence or even torture.
Blue Coat describes PacketShaper, one of their products as follows: “It’s your network. Own it … PacketShaper analyzes and positively identifies traffic generated by hundreds of business and recreational applications.”
Blue Coat’s spoor turns up wherever an overweening government represses rights. Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto project on human rights and the Internet, searched for its traces almost two years ago. Their detailed report found:
Blue Coat devices capable of filtering, censorship, and surveillance are being used around the world. During several weeks of scanning and validation that ended in January 2013, we uncovered 61 Blue Coat ProxySG devices and 316 Blue Coat PacketShaper appliances, devices with specific functionality permitting filtering, censorship, and surveillance.
61 of these Blue Coat appliances are on public or government networks in countries with a history of concerns over human rights, surveillance, and censorship … We found these appliances in the following locations:
Blue Coat ProxySG: Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates.
PacketShaper: Afghanistan, Bahrain, China, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Nigeria, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, and Venezuela.
And Blue Coat has a long history in the Middle East. Before Ben Ali’s dictatorship in Tunisia was overthrown in 2011, his government used DPI technology to track dissidents — “provided by the American companies Blue Coat System and Netapp and by the German company Ultimaco.” In 2011, according to Citizen Lab, Blue Coat admitted under pressure that 13 of its DPI devices were in Syria, in defiance of a US embargo; it claimed they were “initially shipped through a distributor from Dubai and [intended] for the Iraqi Ministry of Communications.” (Similarly, Blue Coat devices have been detected in Iran and Sudan, both also under US embargo.) In 2013, the hacktivist group Telecomix found that the Assad regime had installed 34 Blue Coat servers. These used DPI to “analyse and control the activities of Syrian Internet users – censuring [sic] websites, intercepting emails, obtaining details of sites visited and so on.”
In 2013, Blue Coat replied to the painstaking inquiries of RSF and its allies, insisting that “its products were sold in accordance with the laws governing the sale of its technology. It said all of its sales were channelled through third parties and it expected the same compliance of them.” But think about that strange business model. Why do everything through middlemen who skim the profits?
There’s only one reason all Blue Coat’s sales are “channelled through third parties”: it allows the company to deal with despicable governments, and keep its hands — and rap sheet — clean.
All signs are that Blue Coat has had a productive relationship with Egypt for years. In the Mubarak era in 2009, the company’s CEO, Greg Clark, was already being quoted in Egypt’s Daily News: “Security has traditionally been steeped in fear – of the unknown, of new technology, of loss of control – and that fear has driven a rigidity that stymies growth in the business.” (That’s got to change. Bread, freedom, dignity!) Back in those days, the Cairo dictatorship was busily learning Internet surveillance. They were acquiring DPI — mainly, it seems, from Narus, an Israeli military-security firm that Boeing bought in 2010 and relocated to the US. ( Mubarak’s sinister intelligence chief Omar Suleiman was known for his close ties to Israel.) But either they didn’t have good equipment, or they didn’t know how to use it. Mubarak’s response to Internet dissent remained hammerlike and ham-handed. It’s telling that, faced with a Facebook- and Twitter-fueled revolution in 2011, he responded not by arresting Tweeters or disrupting particular programs, but — famously — by shutting the entire Internet down.
Since the Arab Spring, the generals in Cairo have sought a targeted, sophisticated response. Clearly this is where Blue Coat comes in. But what’s the story behind its mysterious Egyptian partner firm?
Here’s another odd thing. On See Egypt’s cached website, there was a downloadable brochure (also in English) that described the organization as “wholly owned and founded by Egyptian Technical group investing basically their long and deep experience in the areas of computer and Communication.” Meanwhile, I located another Egyptian computer firm, with the Orwellian name of MindWare. It has its own brochure, which says: “Mindware was founded by an Egyptian technical group that investing their long, deep professional and academic experience in the areas of computer, security and communication technologies.” Such similar blurbs, down to the bad English — almost as if the same people wrote them. Why does See Egypt have this peculiar twin?
Mindware is a known name in the region. The Egyptian firm seems to be a branch of a multinational based in the United Arab Emirates. That Mindware was founded in 1991. “Today, the business has risen to $200 million a year, and the company has 130 employees, with offices in Dubai, Riyadh, Cairo, Jeddah and Beirut.” Eventually Mindware UAE was bought by the Midis Group, a Lebanese computer products firm with “strategic investments into the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa. For technology leaders interested in these destinations, the Midis Group … can be an ideal partner.” Of course, those three regions have a history of repressive governments, censorship, and surveillance.
Mindware sells security, though it doesn’t advertise the fact much. Mindware crops up, for instance, as a “partnership” on the website of a UAE-based security firm, EMW. Among other things, EMW is a consultant to NATO in defending America’s Middle Eastern empire (“From Oman to Afghanistan, EMW has been supporting the communication needs of those who serve”). And EMW is another reseller of Blue Coat’s security technology. Blue Coat signed a deal with EMW in 2009 as it “beefed up its Middle East channel.”
But Mindware Egypt, founded in 2009, is a different thing. It doesn’t feel like a branch of a slick $200 million multinational, judging from its vacuous website — also all in English. For one thing, it’s not based in Cairo, it’s in provincial Alexandria. For another, the partial list of customers buried on the site is unimpressive: mostly Egyptian schools and hospitals, not places with money to burn. The enterprise seems far more low-key than See Egypt; it’s hard even to make out what its specialties are (its website says ” Data Communication & security systems”; its Facebook page says “Home Security” and “Automation Services”). Indeed, it’s difficult to see how they turn a profit. The firm seems just to be parked there, waiting for something to happen.
I’ll tell you what I think is going on.
See Egypt and Mindware Egypt are both fronts set up by associates of the security establishment and the Ministry of the Interior. Ministry officers or other bigwigs rig up such spurious firms using family members, for instance, or retired colleagues. They’re not exactly dummy companies: they do some real marketing, exploiting their government connections. (Think of all See Egypt’s cabinet clients, or the schools and hospitals that are victims of Mindware’s sales.) Mindware headquarters in the UAE is happy to adopt these Egyptians as a token “branch,” because they can open doors in the Ministries.
But their real usefulness kicks in when a multimillion-dollar security deal, like the Ministry’s surveillance tender, comes along. Then these firms have a twofold value.
- For a company like Blue Coat, they give deniability: Blue Coat can claim it isn’t selling tools to the torturing State, just to an Egyptian business.
- For the Egyptian side, they grease kickbacks. These firms make a profit in reselling the technology to the Ministry. They can then share these proceeds with the Ministry officials who helped set them up in the first place.
Based on the two companies’ suspiciously twinned descriptions, I’d bet the same people who run See Egypt also established the Egypt “branch” of Mindware. I also suspect See Egypt’s days as Blue Coat’s reseller are numbered, now that it’s been exposed. Its usefulness is over; you can almost feel the stage sets folding. The Blue Coat account, the technology and the training staff will all be shifted to another front firm: Such as Mindware.
Can I prove this? No. I’m just a semi-retired professorial type. But there are investigative reporters in Egypt and beyond who should be looking at these incestuous connections.
All I know for sure is, Egypt’s regime is desperate for what Blue Coat has to offer. And I know who’ll suffer when they get it. There will be the usual suspects, revolutionaries and Islamists — but also labor activists, atheists, feminists, Shi’ites, kids with foreign friends, sarcastic people. In fact, almost anybody.
LGBT Egyptians will suffer too. Already a Ministry of Interior official told BuzzFeed that the technology would hunt down people engaged in “homosexual acts,” “for the protection of Egypt.”
In the US, Blue Coat Systems has a checkered record with LGBT people. In 2013, under pressure, they finally stopped selling the US military filtering software that blocked LGBT websites. They still help governments censor anything “porngraphic,” though — and their definition is elastic as an old jockstrap. Earlier this year, Citizen Lab found:
As of this writing, the websites of the New Braunfels Republican Women, the Kiddie Kollege Nursery School, the Freemasons’ District Grand Lodge of East Africa, the Weston Community Children’s Association, and the Rotary Club of Midland, Ontario are all categorized as “pornography” by Blue Coat Internet blocking software.
But in Egypt, Blue Coat goes beyond the call of duty, ready to help LGBT people rot in jail. Police are arresting suspected gay and trans people all the time. Just this Tuesday they seized another, in Western Cairo: Youm7, the cops’ favorite tabloid, announced that she had a “female body and male genitals,” and that “the accused put a picture and phone number on the networks of pornographic sites on the Internet with an announcement to get ready for the practice of debauchery and fornication.” Fears of sex and of cyberspace feed each other. Imagine how it will be when a policeman can sit in his office following victims’ flirtations on Viber, or perusing their “private” pics on Facebook.
No privacy where the press is concerned: Humiliating “interview” with apparent victim of Tuesday’s arrest, published by Vetogate.com
Blue Coat is evil, and they work with corrupt and evil people: veterans of the military-security complex who have the blood of the tortured under their fingernails. If LGBT activists in the US can put the fear of gay into a corporate gorilla like Mozilla, they should be protesting the hell out of Blue Coat Systems — because Blue Coat sells the tools that send LGBT people to prison. Activists, hit the smartphones and the streets, stop the sales to Egypt!
Otherwise, the tortures will intensify. People will die. (Egypt’s regime loves death. It shoots down “terrorists” and plaits the noose for dissidents; Sisi decrees new capital crimes as if he’s signing birthday cards.) Technology has its own momentum, indifferent to human bodies and lives. Sadists everywhere, prick up your ears. The good stuff is coming.