U.S. Firm Accused of Helping Dictatorships Spy on and Censor Internet

Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Greg Clark, Blue Coat CEO

A human rights-focused technology group accused Blue Coat Systems of Sunnyvale, California, of producing products that repressive regimes around the world are using to monitor and suppress Internet activities.


The Citizen Lab research group, based at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, found that the devices were widely used in Asia and the Middle East, including Syria, which is on a U.S. embargo list. Hacktivists and researchers found that Syria used the appliances to crack down on the political opposition through monitoring and censorship. 


The Canadian group found that two products with specific functions for surveillance, filtering and censorship―ProxySG and PacketShaper―were in widespread use. ProxySG was detected in Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, while PacketShaper was in Afghanistan, Bahrain, China, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Nigeria, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, and Venezuela.


Several Blue Coat devices were found on a state-controlled Internet service provider (ISP) in China, known for its heavy surveillance regime that has earned it the nickname, “The Great Firewall.” The Citizen Lab expressed concern that Afghanistan and Iraq would be building the devices into the foundation of their nations as U.S.-financed reconstruction expands their infrastructure and telecommunications sectors.


The devices from Blue Coat are considered dual-technology, which in this case can be used to enhance online security systems against outside probing or be used as a tool to facilitate breaching security systems and extracting information. The Citizen Lab said they are widely deployed at key communications chokepoints.


ProxySG’s main function is as a web filter, and PacketShaper can shield Internet traffic by identifying around 600 dangerous web applications.  


Blue Coat initially denied their product was being used in Syria when confronted by several groups in 2011. But shortly afterward, the company said devices it had sold to a distributor in Dubai, which were supposed to be headed for the Iraqi Ministry of Communications, ended up in Syria.


Blue Coat, which was bought by equity firm Thoma Bravo in December 2011 for $1.3 billion, is only one of a handful of companies, including McAfee and Cisco, that manufacture this type of technology, according to The Citizen Lab.

-Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Rights Group Reports on Abuses of Surveillance and Censorship Technology (by John Markoff, New York Times)

Blue Coat Appliances Used by Governments to Monitor, Censor Web Traffic (by Robert Lemos, eWeek)

Think Tank Presses Blue Coat over Censorship Concerns (by Jeremy Kirk, ComputerWorld)

Planet Blue Coat: Mapping Global Censorship and Surveillance Tools (Citizen Lab) (pdf)


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