In another embarrassing revelation on how Western corporations prior to the Arab Spring uprising in Libya collaborated with the Gaddafi regime, the Wall Street Journal exposes how these firms, as well as a South African and Chinese company, were providing high tech equipment and expertise to help create a total surveillance state, tracking emails, monitoring chat-rooms and tapping telephone conversations throughout Libya and beyond. Even contacts with a Human Rights Watch investigator were captured.
Col Muammar Gaddafi’s spy network hub, operating out of a six-storey building in Tripoli, now stands deserted, supposedly abandoned in a haste by its loyal working men.
Until recently, this hub served as an internet surveillance centre for a regime that had become obsessed with the perils posed by internet activism, especially as Arab Spring upheavals erupted in the recent months.
The room on the ground floor of this building is now deathly quiet. The doors of the metal filing cabinets lining the walls fall carelessly open and their contents are scattered across the floor.
This was where agents working for the regime eavesdropped on emails and chat messages of Libyans in an attempt to ferret out opposition to the regime. And they did it with the aid of technology acquired from the West.
On the office walls are posters with detailed instructions for the spies on how to operate the surveillance equipment. “How to locate any person owning a cell phone in the country, even in idle mode,” says one. “Refreshment rate is every minute,” says another.
The laminated posters and English-language training manuals strewn across the internet surveillance centre bear the name of Amesys, a unit of French technology firm Bull SA. A posted warning with Amesys logo reads: “Help keep our classified business secret. Don’t discuss classified information out of the HQ.”
With the aid of the sophisticated internet traffic monitoring and filtering equipment, the regime detailed every aspect of the lives of the Libyans caught in its surveillance web. Thousands of dossiers on individual Libyans left in the basement of the spy centre contain photos and fingerprints, as well as information about their families, the cars they drove and the places they worked. The files also contain transcripts of emails and chat messages.
One transcript, dated December 29, 2010, quotes one email as saying: “There will be a demonstration for water and electricity in the Tripoli neighborhood of Hadba, right in front of al Khadra hospital”. The agent in charge of this file, a woman with initials “WG”, has underlined the location with a blue pen.
Another transcript is dated January 19, 2011, nearly a month before the anti-Gaddafi uprising began in Benghazi. “Nothing will happen if we wait for teachers, doctors and lawyers to take to the street,” the author of the intercepted message writes. “We need to work on mosques, where all the Libyans go to pray.”
Col. Gaddafi’s electronic snoopers were particularly interested in human-rights monitors such as Heba Morayef of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, who oversaw the group’s Libya reporting. Files monitoring at least two Libyan activists include emails written by her, as well as messages to her from them.
In one email, dated August 12, 2010, a Libyan activist in Benghazi pleads with Ms Morayef to help him after he and his friends have been accused by authorities of providing information abroad about the human-rights situation in Libya. “We need someone to help,” the activist writes.
All of the activist’s conversations with reporters at Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite channel, are also transcribed. The transcriptions consist of news of demonstrations taking place in Benghazi.
While Col Gaddafi established an elaborate surveillance network soon after he took power in a military coup nearly 42 years ago, the lifting of trade sanctions by the international community in 2004 in exchange for handing over the suspects in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 and ending his weapons of mass destruction programme proved a great boon.Libyamassively upgraded its snooping technology.
The Tripolispy Centre served multiple functions, in addition to electronic snooping. There are thick-walled rooms in the basement that were used as detention cells, says Mahmoud Al Kish, 34, who says he was held there a decade ago.
“I was here for a year,” says Mr Al Kish, shaking as he entered the building again. “They arrested me because I had a beard and I was praying at the mosque. They called me a ‘terrorist’. Everybody was slapping me.”
It is not known how many spies worked here, but they appear to have fled in haste. There appeared to be no attempt to destroy the files. And on Monday, the snooping equipment was still beeping.
Libya is one of several Middle East and North African states to use sophisticated technologies acquired abroad to crack down on dissidents. Tech firms from the U.S.,Canada, Europe, China and elsewhere have, in the pursuit of profits, helped regimes block websites, intercept emails and eavesdrop on conversations.
The Tripoli Internet monitoring center was a major part of a broad surveillance apparatus built by Col. Gaddafi to keep tabs on his opponents. Amesys in 2009 equipped the center with ?deep packet inspection? technology, one of the most intrusive techniques for snooping on people?s online activities, according to people familiar with the matter.
Chinese telecom company ZTE Corp. also provided technology for Libya?s monitoring operation, people familiar with the matter said. Amesys and ZTE had deals with different arms of Col. Gaddafi?s security service, the people said. A ZTE spokeswoman declined to comment.
ZTE Corp has a history of spying. In October 2009, India?suspected the company?of possibly operating equipment with built-in software that had unknown algorithms that were unknown to the government.India suggested the fact the country doesn?t know what hidden instructions the equipment comes with meant the Chinese telecom could be doing anything without them knowing. ZTE Corp denied the allegations.
VASTech SA Pty Ltd, a small South African firm, provided the regime with tools to tap and log all the international phone calls going in and out of the country, according to emails reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and people familiar with the matter. VASTech declined to discuss its business inLibyadue to confidentiality agreements.
According to?CBS News, the Chicago-based Boeing Company held a meeting in Barcelona, Spain, with a Libya telecommunications official on?the possibility of installing an ?Internet-monitoring system.??An ?unnamed source? with Narus, the Boeing unit that would have conducted the cyber-monitoring, told the Journal?the offer fromLibya was rejected. A Narus spokeswoman said Narus does not comment on ?potential business ventures.? But, the fact that Boeing even was interested in the meeting is shady.
The?Journal?notes ?only 100,000 of the country?s 6.6. million population? has Internet. An unnamed source also informed WSJ?between 30 million and 40 million minutes of phone conversations were stored? by regime spies.
Sources: Thenational, WSJ, Opednews, Firedoglake