The interrogation of Abdul Ghani Al Khanjar followed a pattern.
First, Bahraini jailers armed with stiff rubber hoses beat the 39-year-old school administrator and human rights activist in a windowless room two stories below ground in the Persian Gulf kingdom’s National Security Apparatus building. Then, they dragged him upstairs for questioning by a uniformed officer armed with another kind of weapon: transcripts of his text messages and details from personal mobile phone conversations, he says.
If he refused to sufficiently explain his communications, he was sent back for more beatings, says Al Khanjar, who was detained from August 2010 to February.
“It was amazing,” he says of the messages they obtained. “How did they know about these?”
The answer: Computers loaded with Western-made surveillance software generated the transcripts wielded in the interrogations described by Al Khanjar and scores of other detainees whose similar treatment was tracked by rights activists, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its October issue.
The spy gear in Bahrain was sold by Siemens AG (SIE), and maintained by Nokia Siemens Networks and NSN’s divested unit, Trovicor GmbH, according to two people whose positions at the companies gave them direct knowledge of the installations. Both requested anonymity because they have signed nondisclosure agreements. The sale and maintenance contracts were also confirmed by Ben Roome, a Nokia Siemens spokesman based in Farnborough, England.
The Only Way
The only way officers could have obtained messages was through the interception program, says Ahmed Aldoseri, director of information and communications technologies at Bahrain’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. While he won’t disclose details about the program, he says, “If they have a transcript of an SMS message, it’s because the security organ was monitoring the user at their monitoring center.”
The use of the system for interrogation in Bahrain illustrates how Western-produced surveillance technology sold to one authoritarian government became an investigative tool of choice to gather information about political dissidents — and silence them.
Companies are free to sell such equipment almost anywhere. For the most part, the U.S. and European countries lack export controls to deter the use of such systems for repression.
“The technology is becoming very sophisticated, and the only thing limiting it is how deeply governments want to snoop into lives,” says Rob Faris, research director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Surveillance is typically a state secret, and we only get bits and pieces that leak out.”
Some industry insiders now say their own products have become dangerous in the hands of regimes where law enforcement crosses the line to repression.
The images of the Arab spring crackdowns earlier this year unnerved Nikhil Gyamlani, who as a consultant for Trovicor and Nokia Siemens had developed monitoring systems and sold them to some of the countries. The authorities jammed or restricted communications to stymie gatherings and knew where to send riot police before a protest could even start, according to eyewitness reports.
For that to happen, government officials had to have some means of figuring out where to go or whom to target to nip protests in the bud, Gyamlani, 34, says.
Targeting With Technology
“There’s very little chance a government is smart enough without this technology,” he says while smoking Marlboros and drinking Bavarian beer on the patio of a pasta restaurant in Munich. Gyamlani says nondisclosure agreements with his former employers prohibit him from revealing details about specific countries he worked with.
At least 30 people have been killed so far in this year’s uprising in Bahrain, a U.S. ally situated between Qatar and Saudi Arabia that is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Security forces beat paramedics, doctors and nurses who treated the wounded, and prosecutors have charged dozens of medical workers with crimes such as “incitement against the regime,” according to Human Rights Watch. In June, the U.S. put Bahrain on its list of human rights violators.
A Secretive World
Across the Middle East in recent years, sales teams at Siemens, Nokia Siemens, Munich-based Trovicor and other companies have worked their connections among spy masters, police chiefs and military officers to provide country after country with monitoring gear, industry executives say. Their story is a window into a secretive world of surveillance businesses that is transforming the political and social fabric of countries from North Africa to the Persian Gulf.
Monitoring centers, as the systems are called, are sold around the globe by these companies and their competitors, such as Israel-based Nice Systems Ltd. (NICE), and Verint Systems Inc. (VRNT), headquartered in Melville, New York. They form the heart of so- called lawful interception surveillance systems. The equipment is marketed largely to law enforcement agencies tracking terrorists and other criminals.
The toolbox allows more than the interception of phone calls, e-mails, text messages and Voice Over Internet Protocol calls such as those made using Skype. Some products can also secretly activate laptop webcams or microphones on mobile devices. They can change the contents of written communications in mid-transmission, use voice recognition to scan phone networks, and pinpoint people’s locations through their mobile phones. The monitoring systems can scan communications for key words or recognize voices and then feed the data and recordings to operators at government agencies.
‘Effective As Weapons’
Monitoring technology is among the newest artillery in an unfolding digital arms race, says Marietje Schaake, a European Parliament member who tracks abuses of information and communications technology. “We have to acknowledge that certain software products now are actually as effective as weapons,” she says.
Uprisings from Tunisia to Bahrain have drawn strength from technologies such as social-networking sites and mobile-phone videos. Yet, the flip side of the technology that played a part in this year’s “Facebook revolutions” may be far more forceful.
Rulers fought back, exploiting their citizens’ digital connections with increasingly intrusive tools.
They’ve tapped a market that’s worth more than $3 billion a year, according to Jerry Lucas, president of McLean, Virginia- based TeleStrategies Inc., organizer of the ISS World trade shows for intelligence and lawful interception businesses. He derives that estimate by applying per-employee revenue figures from publicly traded Verint’s lawful intercept business across the mostly privately held industry.
In the hands of autocrats, the surveillance gear is providing unprecedented power to monitor and crush dissent — a phenomenon that Ben Wagner of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, calls “push-button autocracy.”
The technology has become pervasive. By the end of 2007, the Nokia Siemens Intelligence Solutions unit had more than 90 systems installed in 60 countries, according to company brochures.
Besides Bahrain, several other Middle Eastern nations that cracked down on uprisings this year — including Egypt, Syria and Yemen — also purchased monitoring centers from the chain of businesses now known as Trovicor. Trovicor equipment plays a surveillance role in at least 12 Middle Eastern and North African nations, according to the two people familiar with the installations.
Trovicor’s precursor, which started in 1993 as the voice- and data-recording unit of Siemens, in 2007 became part of Nokia Siemens Networks, the world’s second biggest maker of wireless communications equipment. NSN, a 50-50 joint venture with Espoo, Finland-based Nokia Oyj (NOK1V), sold the unit, known as Intelligence Solutions, in March 2009. The new owners, Guernsey-based Perusa Partners Fund 1 LP, renamed the business Trovicor, coined from the Latin and Esperanto words for find and heart, according to the company’s website.
“We are very aware that communications technology can be used for good and ill,” NSN spokesman Roome says. The elevated risk of human rights abuses was a major reason for NSN’s exiting the monitoring-center business, and the company has since established a human rights policy and due diligence program, he says.
“Ultimately people who use this technology to infringe human rights are responsible for their actions,” he says.
Asked whether Trovicor or its predecessors sold monitoring centers to Middle Eastern nations that have cracked down on uprisings this year, Roome says the company can’t talk about specific countries. NSN retained little documentation on the business after divesting it and has no data about the scope of its monitoring-center sales in the Mideast, he says.
Wolfram Trost, a spokesman for Munich-based Siemens, Europe’s largest engineering company, says he can’t comment because all documentation from the intelligence solutions unit had been transferred to Nokia Siemens.
Birgitt Fischer-Harrow, Trovicor’s head of marketing communications, said Trovicor’s contracts prevent it from disclosing its customers or the countries where it does business. She declined to comment further.
Trovicor’s owners only invest in ethical businesses, says Christian Hollenberg, a founder of Munich-based Perusa GmbH, the adviser to the Perusa investment fund. He includes in that category Trovicor, which the fund owns in its entirety.
“It’s a legal business, and it’s part of every communications network in the civilized world,” he says.