Activists and investigative journalists are highlighting the linkage between modern surveillance technologies and repressive governments.

There are now two excellent investigative reporting series, one by the Wall Street Journal (Censorship, Inc.) and another by Bloomberg, (Wired for Repression) Thanks to the overthrow of dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, grisly but fascinating tales about the use of digital information and communication technologies as elements of systems of repression and disinformation have been unearthed. Most pointedly, they have fingered the commercial vendors of this technology, exposing the presence of brand-name equipment from American and European companies in the hands of evil ‘security’ services.

This blog post offers a critique of this budding movement, turning a critical eye upon a righteous cause. The emerging narrative around surveillance technology provides the perfect frame for public activism. You have a clear bad guy – a Gadhafi, an Assad, the Iranian theocrats, the Chinese Communist Party. You have a symbolic token, a technology, which links the bad guys and their bad actions to reachable actors – the corporate vendors – who are part of our own society and jurisdiction. You can then campaign on a simple moral impulse – the reachable actors must not be allowed to aid, abet or profit from the violence and political injustice of the bad guys. This in turn leads to what seems like a simple and effective policy response – to sever the link between reachable actors and the bad guys by somehow banning or regulating the transfer of this technology on a global basis.

It is that last bit where things get vague and unsatisfying, as we shall see. But first, let me enumerate the good points about this movement. There are two critical ones, and they deserve to be recognized.

*        The publicity and shaming focused on vendors has made Americans and Europeans aware that there is a transnational surveillance technology industry, that it runs conferences where dictators and their spies mingle with ordinary network operators and equipment and service vendors to avail themselves of their powerful tools, using the funds they’ve looted from the local economy. This growing awareness, in and of itself, is an important advance in our approach to global Internet governance.

*        The publicity has also heightened our awareness of how pervasive and intrusive the new surveillance technology can be, and how easily it can be bent to evil causes. As this insight sinks in, it can only make people in Western countries, who try to uphold liberal and democratic institutions, more focused on what their own governments are – or could be – doing with those capabilities.

All that is to the good. So it is easy to see how journalists, activists and the general public could become swept up in this narrative.

But we must also be more aware of the oversimplifications upon which the narrative rests, the unanswered questions it poses, and the risk that the political energy it generates is being misdirected into blind alleys. In this area as in so many others, a lot of political discourse consists of sound bites that make politicians and activists look good on TV, without actually accomplishing anything lasting. Here are some cautionary points to bear in mind.

First, we need to stop pretending that a specific type of technology and a few commercial vendors can be vested with responsibility for an entire societal system of repression and control. Pressuring Western vendors may well get them to wash their hands of dirty regimes in the short term, but it will not lead to the fall of those regimes and may not change them in any substantial way. We should have no illusions about that.

The fallacious attitude behind much of this talk is that the surveillance technology is a kind of magic talisman, and whoever possesses it instantly achieves unchecked power over society at large. But I cannot be the first to notice that 4 out of the 6 countries routinely targeted by this publicity on surveillance technology have either fallen already (Tunisia, Libya, Egypt) or are at risk of falling (Syria)? The other two, Iran and China, have used censorship and surveillance to survive popular upheavals, but in both cases it was mainly brute force –coupled with a modicum of support from critical factions of the populace –  that did the trick, not information technology alone.

Second, we need to recognize that it is political institutions that need to change more than trade in technology. It seems obvious, but gets lost in the shuffle: the problem lies in the users and uses of the technology, not in the equipment or software itself. The only relevant difference between US use of surveillance technology and Libya’s (or Iran’s or China’s) is that in the former case there is a rule of law which (most of the time, and imperfectly) protects individual rights and limits the use of the technology for arbitrary surveillance, repression and harassment. Therefore this is not, at root, a problem of governments having or not having a specific device or piece of software. It is an institutional problem – one of balancing and routinizing social processes in ways that effectively limit, regulate and distribute political power and hold those who exercise it accountable.

And yet politicians remain fixated on the technology. Some are proposing to put various forms of information technology on “restricted lists” which require approvals and assurances before they can be sold. Others are talking about using “phone home” functions to track and monitor the location and activities of the technology. The irony seems lost on them: they are proposing to respond to the problems of surveillance and repression by building more surveillance and centralized tracking functions into the infrastructure.

The problem with this approach is that information technology, unlike bombs or tanks, is fundamentally multi-purpose in nature. You cannot isolate “bad” information technology in order to control bad uses. There is no technical difference between the devices and services for digital surveillance used by the Chinese and Iranian governments and those used by the American, Canadian, French or British governments. The same capabilities inhere in all of them.

Thus, there is little appreciation of the extent to which export controls and other restrictions might retard the overall diffusion and development of information and communication technology, cut off access to good people and good uses as well as bad ones, or restrict our own freedom to use the technology as and how we see fit.

Insofar as access to technology is part of the problem, it is mainly one of finding ways to undermine the state’s monopoly on that technology and to broaden its availability to the people in authoritarian countries. People in free societies are able (or ought to be able) to consume, produce and use ICTs in an autonomous way, putting them on a more equal status with their governments. Technologically-enabled repression inevitably involves special, exclusive powers over technical capabilities reserved to the state, monopolies on communications service provision, centralization of architectures to facilitate control, and so on. We should be pressing for free trade and free markets in communication and information technology products and services in those countries, not creating restricted lists and throwing everything that can be misused onto them. Competition and liberalization of the telecommunications industry, for example – though often excoriated by lefties as an aspect of the dreaded “neoliberalism,” has been one of the most powerful tools limiting state power over communications.

This becomes clearer when one broadens one’s perspective. Stop focusing narrowly on information technology, and examine the tools of repression and aggression more generically. Yes, nasty spyware embedded in mobile telephone infrastructure can lead to the capture and shooting of people the government doesn’t like. But what about the bullets and guns themselves? Or the airplanes and tanks? Why is the information technology being singled out? Consider this: In October 2010 the Obama administration formally notified Congress that it wants to sell $60 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia. Sales will include 84 new F-15 fighter jets, upgrades to 70 existing Saudi F-15s, 190 helicopters, and an array of missiles, bombs and delivery systems, as well as accessories such as night-vision goggles and radar warning systems. The rationale was described by one newspaper as “a move designed to help counter growing Iranian power.” But do we have any control over how that technology will be used? Doesn’t this make the DPI appliances and email scanners look paltry by comparison? The U.S. had a similar relationship to Egypt; its massive level of support for the Egyptian military is partly responsible for the current distortion of the Egyptian revolution. Shouldn’t talk about information technology’s role in aiding repression be placed in this context?

Saudi Arabia is as repressive politically as Iran or China; it censors the internet and conducts surveillance of its users just as much. In March 2009, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Internet ordered Internet cafés to install hidden cameras and provide a record of the names and identities of their customers. Should we respond to this problem by imposing restrictions on world trade in cameras? Should we focus on the specific vendor of the  camera and shame them into withdrawing their products? To me, the answer is self-evident: such an approach confuses the symptom with the disease.

And yet here is Corinna-Barbara Francis, a researcher at Amnesty International, railing against Cisco in an attempt to prevent it from selling a Chinese municipality street surveillance cameras which, for all we can tell, are primarily intended to be used for municipal police purposes and which do not different in any significant respect from the surveillance we have in the UK. In a news report, she said surveillance footage has been used to identify and apprehend peaceful protesters in China, including in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Here the utter confusion between technology and bad use is evident. There is a crude kind of anthropomorphism at work here. If you can blame a video surveillance camera for its misuse by repugnant governments, and argue for blocking the movement of those goods, what about integrated circuits, copper wires and lenses that go into them? What about the plastic housings? What about the shipping services that transported the material there? Exactly when do these materials and services become evil? Exactly how much of the supply chain should be targeted for restriction? And anyway, how likely is it that the way Chinese municipalities use those cameras will change if the Cisco deal is torpedoed? Won’t they just get the cameras from someone else, or from a domestic supplier? Isn’t this whole approach to the problem a dead end?  

If you really want to punish, isolate and sanitize your relationship to a repressive government, you cannot limit the sanctions to specific forms of ICT. There must be a comprehensive system of sanctions that prevents anyone in that country from doing any kind of business with the country involved. Even then, the regime may not change; think of North Korea. Even then, there will be leaks or route-arounds.

China produces sophisticated equipment and is unlikely to participate in Western boycotts or sanctions motivated by human rights concerns. And we must not forget that there will be collateral damage from such sanctions; e.g., the denial of many useful things to innocent people. Thus, while it may be satisfying in a moral sense to block information technology deals to such regimes, it is unlikely to completely cut them off from access as long as there are alternative sources. And insofar as they succeed in denying them access to dual-use technologies, those actions will stunt the development of those societies, producing an ambiguous effect as it has in Cuba and North Korea.

I understand the logic of social movements. I understand that the link between western corporations and repressive regimes provides perfect fodder for making a political statement about the misuse of information technology, and generates support and funding for good causes. I also fully understand, and sympathize with, the moral imperative for companies and the rest of us not to be complicit in repression. But activists concerned with real social change must think through this problem more deeply, and come up with strategies that strike more directly at the pillars of authoritarianism, censorship and arbitrary power, rather than lashing out at easy domestic targets.