When Mamur Azimov, a human rights lawyer, tried to assist the wife of Nabizhon Zhurabaev who had been arrested on suspicion of trying to overthrow the government of Uzbekistan, he approached Talib Yakubov, an Uzbek human rights activist living in Paris. They communicated via Skype. However, at some point the Uzbeki Internal Security service, the SNB, summoned Azimov and Zhurabaev's wife, telling them to desist from making these calls. When Zhurabaev was brought to court, the prosecution played recordings from all of May 2013, even though the official investigation only commenced on the 30th of that month.
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Why should this story and many others like it hold any interest for us? Well, it has an Israeli angle, and according to a new report by the human rights group Privacy International, it’s not the usual story we like to tell ourselves about the wonders of Israeli high-tech.
In preparing their report, this group looked into how governments in Central Asia managed to install advanced monitoring and surveillance systems that tracked human rights activists, journalists and other citizens within and outside their countries. The group’s investigators interviewed dozens of political activists and journalists, who related that their Internet communications had been tracked by governments in the region. One of the key findings was that the Israeli companies NICE Systems and Verint were key players in supplying the technology that enabled the security organizations, heirs to the KGB after the demise of the Soviet Union to spy on their citizens.
“Central Asian governments installed advanced surveillance systems that included centers that could monitor all communications within the country,” reads the report. “These systems were set up thanks to foreign companies who provided the equipment and services that enable these regimes to spy on their people. The biggest players are multinationals with offices in Israel – NICE Systems and Verint.”
The report covered Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, all of which have been associated in the past with troublesome human rights records. Kazakhstan had a place of honor in the Human Rights Watch report in 2014: “The bad human rights situation there deteriorated even more in 2013.” The report notes that freedom of expression and religion, suppression of protest and torture are rife. The same report cites the situation in Uzbekistan as “shocking.”
Edin Omanovic, one of the writers of the Privacy International report, told Haaretz in a phone conversation that they had encountered 70 companies from the West and Russia that were involved in some way in setting up the infrastructure for Internet use and its monitoring. The report distinguishes between different kinds of involvement of these companies, which included British, Russian and German ones. Some set up local monitoring stations while others set up the network infrastructure in a way that allowed the security forces easy access.
NICE and Verint set up monitoring centers in Almaty (Alma-Ata) and Astana for the Kazakh security services. A similar post was established in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan has a network of local monitoring stations which serve to track the network across the country, based on a Russian system called SORM (designed for operative investigations). The technology for these was supplied by Russian and American companies, often through local intermediaries.
However, the central facilities were supplied by the Israeli companies. In Astana, for example, there are two such monitoring centers, supplied by both Israeli companies, situated in the same building. Omanovic said that the Israeli companies service these facilities and train their operators.
The report states that Verint started working with the Kazakh secret service in the first few years of the new millennium. Since then the company’s monitoring center served to intercept calls. Starting in 2012, monitoring of Internet traffic was added, using the “Deep Packet Inspection” technology. This allows users to distinguish between types of files going through cyberspace, as well as allowing inspection of their contents. Verint also tried to let the Uzbeki authorities uncover content that was encrypted using SSL technology. “These centers allow security services direct, unsupervised access to phone conversations and Internet traffic used by civilians, on a huge scale.”
Privacy International put forth recommendations that would prevent oppressive regimes from using advanced monitoring technologies. They call for suspending exports of these technologies when it’s not clear who the users will be and without inspecting their true purpose. They call for suspending exports when, as in Central Asia, there is no constitutional infrastructure that will guarantee that these technologies are not abused.
“The brutal secret police of authoritarian states have been empowered with sweeping surveillance capabilities, aimed at putting the private lives of every individual within their reach," says Omanovic. "This is the inevitable horrific scenario that results from the industry operating unsupervised, under the radar."
A NICE Systems representative commented that “our cyber and intelligence solutions assist law enforcement agencies in preventing crime and terrorist activity across the world. They help protect lives by gathering and analyzing information in real time. The company only sells its products to countries with which Israel has commercial ties, subject to regulation by the foreign and defense ministries. Use of the systems is made by law-enforcement agencies in these countries. The company cannot comment on current or future customers.”
Verint declined to comment.