An investigation into commercial online filtering technology reveals the prevalence of devices from Blue Coat, an American firm, being used to censor the Web in Syria and Burma. Ron Deibert of Toronto's Citizen Lab discusses the report's importance.
If you live in Burma or Syria, good luck trying to access pro-democracy websites, overseas news networks, even dating websites. Thanks to devices made by Blue Coat Systems, portions of the Net are inaccessible to residents in these countries, and a recent report reveals how a number of these filtering devices have been found in the regions, despite the manufacturer claiming they never sell their products to embargoed countries.
The report Behind Blue Coat: Investigations of commercial filtering in Syria and Burma, from University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, found two more Blue Coat devices in Syria than previously documented. While Blue Coat acknowledges 13 of its devices in Syria, which were part of a shipment of 14 devices reportedly sold to the Iraqi government, they have not yet commented on the discovery of these new commercial filter units.
The discovery of the new devices led Citizen Lab researchers to uncover more info about the filters, writing in the report, "The traffic data displayed on this network monitoring system indicates that the devices had been in use since at least April 2011."
How did the Lab find the devices? Rob Deibert, director of the Lab, said in an interview they regularly test online filtering happening in 70 countries, and they found error messages while surfing in Syria similar to other error messages relating to Blue Coat filtering.
When they tested online censorship possibilities in Burma, they found the same error message, leading them to discover Blue Coat devices being used in that region.
Both Burma and Syria have long been supporters of censoring the Web so their citizens can't access pro democracy or anti-Islam content, Deibert points out.
Courtesy Citizen Lab
Network error page from ISP SCS in Syria, identical to similar message in Burma
"The market for surveillance and censorship is growing worldwide as governments attempt to control cyberspace for strategic interests," Deibert says.
Blue Coat released a statement about the first batch of 13 devices uncovered by researchers in war-torn countries such as Syria, writing, "Blue Coat does not sell to countries embargoed by the US, and does not allow its partners to sell to embargoed countries."
Deibert still has unanswered questions. "How does their reseller system work exactly?" he wonders. "Also, do they monitor the pulses of their devices in countries such as Burma and Syria?" This kind of monitoring would alert Blue Coat to their technology being used in specific regions, he adds.
Blue Coat declined a request for an interview, referring Digital Journal to their online statement.
The company also explained, "We are not providing support, updates or other services to these appliances. In essence, these ProxySG appliances are operating independently."
The Lab's report concludes, "The Citizen Lab strongly urges Blue Coat...to take all necessary steps to limit the functionality of Blue Coat devices located in Syria and Burma."
Courtesy Ron Deibert
University of Toronto researcher Ron Deibert helps run The Citizen Lab
Deibert also speaks on why he dedicates his career to probing Net censorship around the world. "I care deeply about online human rights. I’m a political scientist first so part of my mission is trying to put in place proper checks and balances to protect basic civil liberties."
Perhaps that's why the Lab developed Psiphon, a technology allowing Web users to circumvent commercial filters. Deibert's Citizen Lab needs to expose the censors, and "in order to do that we need to lift the lid on Net to find out what’s going on under the surface. We're basically taking an MRI of the Net and laying it bare for users to see what's happening."