Cyberwar: Egypt Pulls the Plug on the Internet as the World Reels in Shock

January 30th, 2011 - by admin

Benny Evangelista / San Francisco Chronicle & Timothy Karr / Huffington Post – 2011-01-30 00:16:14

Tech World Stunned at Egypt’s Internet Shutdown
Benny Evangelista / San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO (January 29, 2011) — The Egyptian government’s unprecedented shutdown of Internet and mobile phone access Friday stunned the world’s technology community, which questioned whether the country can quickly recover from cutting such a vital link for commerce and communication.

The government’s surprising move came in the face of widespread civil unrest, but essentially wiped the country off the world’s online maps, said Jim Cowie, chief technology officer and co-founder of Renesys, a New Hampshire firm that monitors how the Internet is operating.

“It is astonishing because Egypt has so much potentially to lose in terms of credibility with the Internet community and the economic world,” Cowie said. “It will set Egypt back for years in terms of its hopes of becoming a regional Internet power.” He said the long-term economic effects are unclear because “we’ve never seen a country rebooted on this scale before.”

The shutdown illustrated how ingrained the Internet has become for everyday global communications. Moreover, the unrest in Egypt, and that in Tunisia the week before, have once again highlighted how vital online social networks like San Francisco’s Twitter Inc., and Palo Alto’s Facebook Inc. and the video-sharing site YouTube Inc. of San Bruno have become in exporting ideals such as freedom of speech.

Protesters, for example, used a Facebook page to list their demands and rally support.

“A world without the Internet is unimaginable,” Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said in an e-mailed response to the Egyptian shutdown. “Although the turmoil in Egypt is a matter for the Egyptian people and their government to resolve, limiting Internet access for millions of people is a matter of concern for the global community. It is essential to communication and to commerce. No one should be denied access to the Internet.”

Facebook and Twitter
Both Facebook and Twitter reported diminishing traffic to and from Egypt as the protests escalated this week, presumably as the government sought to filter those sites.

The precise “surgical” targeting of Facebook and Twitter wasn’t surprising, though it failed to quell the uprising. But Cowie said he was astonished when the country began cutting all access, especially because Egypt has aspirations to become a Middle East hub for Internet operations.

‘Obliged to Comply’
Renesys watched as about 93 percent of Egypt’s Internet traffic began to shut down after midnight Friday in Cairo. Cowie said he could track each of the country’s major Internet service providers as they began a shutdown and data suggest government officials made a series of quick phone calls within a few minutes.

In a statement on the company’s website, Vodafone Egypt also said that “all mobile operators in Egypt have been instructed to suspend services in selected areas. Under Egyptian legislation the authorities have the right to issue such an order and we are obliged to comply with it. The Egyptian authorities will be clarifying the situation in due course.”

Cowie said there was only one other similar government-ordered online shutdown, in Burma in 2007, but that did not compare to the outage in as large a country as Egypt.

“What happens when you disconnect a modern economy and 80 million people from the Internet?” Cowie wrote in a Renesys blog. “What will happen tomorrow, on the streets and in the credit markets? This has never happened before and the unknowns are piling up.”

The nonprofit Internet Society of Reston, Va., said that shutdown was “an inappropriate response to a political crisis” and “a serious intrusion into its citizens’ basic rights to communicate.”

‘Ones that Will Suffer’
“Ultimately, the Egyptian people and nation are the ones that will suffer, while the rest of the world will be worse off with the loss of Egyptian voices on the Net,” the group said.

Eva Galperin, international activist with the San Francisco digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the situation shows what can happen if laws are enacted to “put the power to shut down a portion of the Internet in the hands of a single person, whether it’s the president of Egypt or the president of the United States.”

Galperin also said that while social networking has given activists in Egypt, Tunisia and Iran a “powerful voice” heard beyond their own borders, the Bay Area is also home to companies that provide computer security tools that governments can use to identify and retaliate against them.

Activists living in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes should take precautions to not reveal personal information that could jeopardize their lives, she said.

Narus Singled Out
In an article published by the Huffington Post [See below], Timothy Karr, campaign director of the Washington media reform group Free Press, singled out Narus Inc., a Sunnyvale computer security firm, for selling the Egyptian government tools for monitoring Internet and mobile phone traffic. “What we are seeing in Egypt is a frightening example of how the power of technology can be abused,” Karr said.

A spokeswoman for Narus did not return voice and e-mail messages requesting comment.

© 2011 Hearst Communications Inc.

One U.S. Corporation’s Role in Egypt’s Brutal Crackdown
Timothy Karr / Huffington Post

(January 28, 2011) — The open Internet’s role in popular uprising is now undisputed. Look no further than Egypt, where the Mubarak regime today reportedly shut down Internet and cell phone communications — a troubling predictor of the fierce crackdown that has followed.

What’s even more troubling is news that one American company is aiding Egypt’s harsh response through sales of technology that makes this repression possible.

The Internet’s favorite offspring — Twitter, Facebook and YouTube — are now heralded on CNN, BBC and Fox News as flag-bearers for a new era of citizen journalism and activism. (More and more these same news organizations have abandoned their own, more traditional means of newsgathering to troll social media for breaking information.)

But the open Internet’s power cuts both ways: The tools that connect, organize and empower protesters can also be used to hunt them down.

Telecom Egypt, the nation’s dominant phone and Internet service provider, is a state-run enterprise, which made it easy on Friday morning for authorities to pull the plug and plunge much of the nation into digital darkness.

Moreover, Egypt also has the ability to spy on Internet and cell phone users, by opening their communication packets and reading their contents. Iran used similar methods during the 2009 unrest to track, imprison and in some cases, “disappear” truckloads of cyber-dissidents.

The companies that profit from sales of this technology need to be held to a higher standard. One in particular is an American firm, Narus of Sunnyvale, Calif., which has sold Telecom Egypt “real-time traffic intelligence” equipment.

Narus, now owned by Boeing, was founded in 1997 by Israeli security experts to create and sell mass surveillance systems for governments and large corporate clients. The company is best known for creating NarusInsight, a supercomputer system which is allegedly used by the National Security Agency and other entities to perform mass surveillance and monitoring of public and corporate Internet communications in real time.

Narus provides Egypt Telecom with Deep Packet Inspection equipment (DPI), a content-filtering technology that allows network managers to inspect, track and target content from users of the Internet and mobile phones, as it passes through routers on the information superhighway.

Other Narus global customers include the national telecommunications authorities in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — two countries that regularly register alongside Egypt near the bottom of Human Rights Watch’s world report.

“Anything that comes through (an Internet protocol network), we can record,” Steve Bannerman, Narus’ marketing vice president, once boasted to Wired about the service. “We can reconstruct all of their e-mails along with attachments, see what web pages they clicked on; we can reconstruct their (Voice Over Internet Protocol) calls.”

Other North American and European companies are selling DPI to enable their business customers “to see, manage and monetize individual flows to individual subscribers.” But this “Internet-enhancing” technology has been sought out by regimes in Iran, China and Burma for more brutal purposes.

In addition to Narus, there are a number of companies, including many others in the United States, that produce and traffic in similar spying and control technology. This list of DPI providers includes Zeugma Systems (Canada), Camiant (USA), Procera Networks (USA), Allot (Israel), Ixia (USA), AdvancedIO (Canada) and Sandvine (Canada), among others.

These companies typically partner with Internet Service Providers to insert DPI along the main arteries of the Web. All Net traffic in and out of Iran, for example, travels through one portal — the Telecommunications Company of Iran — which facilitates the use of DPI.

When commercial network operators use DPI, the privacy of Internet users is compromised. But in government hands, the use of DPI can crush dissent and lead to human rights violations.

Setting the Bar High for DPI Sales
Even Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on this problem.

“Internet censorship is a real challenge, and not one any particular industry — much less any single company — can tackle on its own, ” Rep. Mary Bono Mack wrote in a 2009 letter to Rep. Henry Waxman, then chair of the House Commerce Committee. “Efforts to promote freedom of expression and to limit the impact of censorship require both private and public sector engagement.”

Earlier this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Egypt’s government “not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media.” Bono Mack’s letter and Clinton’s statement echo Free Press’ call for a congressional inquiry into the issue. But this is just a start.

Before DPI becomes more widely deployed around the world and at home, the Congress ought to establish clear criteria for authorizing the use of such surveillance and control technologies. The power to control the Internet and the resulting harm to democracy are so disturbing that the threshold for using DPI must be very high.

Today we’re seeing the grave dangers of this technology unfold in real time on the streets of Cairo.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.