US govt, tech firms split over curbs on 'spyware'

Authorities want to stop repressive govts from acquiring tools of control, but companies say rules are too general

WASHINGTON • Ayman Ammar and Rashid Albuni claimed they were computer technology distributors, operating through multiple corporations in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

The United States government, though, charged them with smuggling - illegally shipping to the Syrian government US equipment that can help it monitor Internet traffic and spy on dissidents.

The Syrian case, in which the two men were fined last month for violating US economic sanctions against Syria, is one of the few that the Obama administration has pursued to limit authoritarian governments from acquiring technology that enables censoring, spying and hacking.

That is largely because many of the same tools that repressive governments seek from Western companies are vital for social media and other communications by political protesters and grassroots organisers throughout the world.

The software and other equipment are also used by US and other law enforcement agencies to track criminals or disrupt plots, and are needed to filter out unwanted content from most commercial and governmental networks and keep them secure.

THE GOOD AND THE BAD

You have the professionals, the big firms that are very legitimate, and then you have some dodgy parts of the business, which, like gunrunning, is subterranean and shrouded in secrecy.

PROFESSOR RONALD DEIBERT, director of Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which published information that alerted the US Department of Commerce to the Syrian smuggling case.

Such dual-use technology is now at the centre of a conflict between Silicon Valley and the administration over additional restraints on technology exports.

The US government signed an international agreement in 2013 that calls for new curbs on exports of advanced surveillance technology to governments with troubling human rights records.

The accord adds the technology to a longstanding arms control pact that seeks to limit weapons exports to such governments.

Some argue that the global market for such technology is emerging as a 21st century version of the arms trade. To go with their tanks, assault helicopters and fighter jets, repressive governments now seek the latest routers, servers and software from Silicon Valley or Europe.

"You have the professionals, the big firms that are very legitimate, and then you have some dodgy parts of the business, which, like gunrunning, is subterranean and shrouded in secrecy," said Professor Ronald Deibert, the director of Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which published information that alerted the Department of Commerce to the Syrian smuggling case.

The US tech industry mounted a fierce opposition after the Department of Commerce proposed new licensing requirements in May on exports of technology that can be used for surveillance.

The regulation was intended to abide by the 2013 pact, called the Wassenar Arrangement, signed by 41 countries. The administration has since quietly shelved the proposal.

Computer industry executives complained that it was written so broadly that it would make it more difficult to sell a wide range of Internet-related equipment and software overseas.

Even some privacy advocates thought the proposed regulation was poorly drafted and might hinder activists in developing countries from gaining access to the technology they need to protect their communications.

"Trying to differentiate it is impossible, it really is dual-use," said Ms Cheri F. McGuire, vice-president for global government affairs at Symantec, a cyber security firm based in California. "Trying to put controls on exports would limit the positive aspects that this technology provides to protect and secure networks," she added.

But critics say the tech industry has for years taken advantage of the lax restrictions on such "dual use" technology to sell it to repressive countries.

In interviews, administration officials said they planned to issue a new regulation after more consultation with the tech industry, probably next year.

NEW YORK TIMES

 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2015, with the headline 'US govt, tech firms split over curbs on 'spyware''. Print Edition | Subscribe