By Francis Wade
Devices manufactured by a US web security company used by the Syrian government to cripple the country’s internet during the recent crackdown on protestors are believed to also be in use in Burma, despite strict regulations surrounding the supply of technology from the US to sanctioned countries.
Amidst a somewhat uncharacteristically slow internet connection over the past week, messages have been appearing on computer screens inside Burma warning of a network error. The University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab research group says there is evidence that the message is generated by Blue Coat, a Californian company that offers, among other things, content filtering.
“An entry on the Blue Coat support forums explaining how to modify error messages displayed by ProxySG devices identifies the exact text seen [in the warning] as the default message,” Citizen Lab said on its website.
The company is already in hot water after it was forced to admit that its technology was used in Syria by a government seeking to draw a veil over the country while its troops opened fire on democracy protestors. The messages that appeared on screens in Burma bear a striking resemblance to those seen in Syria.
“This error message is nearly identical to one received as a result of tests run on the Syrian [internet service provider] … in October 2011,” said Citizen Lab.
Blue Coat initially denied the charges about Syria, but eventually published a statement on its website in which it acknowledged its product were in use there. Some appliances “apparently were transferred illegally to Syria after being lawfully sold to a channel distribution partner for a seemingly appropriate designated end user”, namely the Iraqi government, it said. Blue Coat company policy dictates that resellers are forbidden from selling to sanctioned countries.
It added however that its appliances “are not intended for surveillance purposes, and have limited utility for such purposes”. The statement continued that the company is “saddened by the human suffering and loss of human life that may be the result of actions by a repressive regime. We don’t want our products to be used by the government of Syria or any other country embargoed by the United States”.
It remains a mystery how its technology ended up in Burma, a country branded by the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders as an “enemy of the internet” given the lengthy prison sentences currently being served by dozens of bloggers and journalists who have used the web to publish anti-government material.
While US sanctions on Syria are stricter than those it holds on Burma, Citizen Lab said that the recent findings “raised additional questions relevant to the use of Blue Coat technology for purposes that compromise internationally-recognized human rights”. The group contacted Blue Coat on 27 October for clarification on the issue, but as of yesterday had received no response.
Internet penetration in Burma remains among the lowest in the world, at less than one percent of the population. The government, which recently transitioned to nominally civilian rule, has been known to either slow or shut down the internet completely during politically-sensitive times, such as the September 2007 uprising and last year’s elections. The reasons behind the current slowdown are not clear.
Reporters Without Borders released a report last year saying that an overhaul of the country’s internet service in 2010, hailed by the government as an upgrade, actually increased surveillance of users and introduced a third ISP which reserves “the fastest and best-quality [internet] access for the government and military”.
But in August this year a number of previously-banned news websites, including DVB, were unblocked, prompting observers to speculate that the country’s draconian media environment was opening up.
Citizen Lab said the company should “take all necessary steps to limit the functionality of Blue Coat devices located in Syria and Burma” and fully investigate the group’s findings.