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Syria not alone in spying on citizens

By Taylor Armerding, CSO
December 05, 2012 11:00 AM ET

CSO - The Internet, long viewed as a tool to expand freedom, is an equally effective tool for repression. That is just as true in the United States as anywhere else.

Security guru Bruce Schneier noted in a recent blog post, citing Evgeny Morozov's book, "The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom," that, "Repressive regimes all over the world are using the Internet to more efficiently implement surveillance, censorship, and propaganda. And they're getting really good at it."

Infamous spies and their techie ties

Schneier, chief security technology officer at BT and a well-known author, wrote that while IT technologies are generally mastered first, "by the more agile individuals and groups outside the formal power structures ... unfortunately, and inevitably, governments have caught up."

One of the most visible examples of that at present is Syria, where in February 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring demonstrations, the government of President Bashar al-Assad inexplicably reversed a long-standing ban on websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the Arabic version of Wikipedia.

But it was essentially a sting. The government used those social networking sites to spy on and track dissidents, and then to arrest and torture them, Stephan Faris reported for Bloomberg Businessweek.

Faris reported on the case of Taymour Karim, who withstood torture under interrogation and refused to give up the names of his friends, all for naught.

"It didn't matter," Faris wrote. "His computer had already told all. 'They knew everything about me,' Karim said. 'The people I talked to, the plans, the dates, the stories of other people, every movement, every word I said through Skype. They even knew the password of my Skype account ... My computer was arrested before me.'"

Assad has long been known as an oppressive dictator, and U.S. officials including President Obama have called for his ouster. But Americans watching from half a world away should not get too smug, say some security experts. If the U.S. ever gets its own version of a President Assad, the tools are not only in place to monitor the activities of citizens, they are already in use.

William Binney, the well-known whistleblower who worked for the National Security Agency (NSA) for 32 years, said he resigned in protest in 2001 after the Bush administration launched a top-secret surveillance program to spy on U.S. citizens without warrants. It was code named Stellar Wind, or just "The Program."

In a New York Times "op-doc" by independent filmmaker Laura Poitras, Binney is shown at a conference saying,"NSA's charter was to do foreign intelligence and I was with that and did that all the way. Unfortunately they took those programs that I built and turned them on you, and I'm sorry for that."

Binney has been saying for a decade that the U.S. is collecting every electronic activity of its citizens. In a recent interview with RT, he estimated the number of electronic documents now being stored at "probably close to 20 trillion."

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