If you've been keeping track of American Internet and the battles over surfer privacy, then you have run into the name Narus, which specializes in tapping surfer traffic. It was founded in 1997 by Dr Ori Cohen, Stas Khirman and four other guys in Israel.
For years Narus sailed on untroubled. But today it's become associated with the likes of Carnivore or Echelon, the notorious software programs that have become linked with spying on email and delivering data on surfers to government agencies.
The image change Narus has suffered and its frequent mentions in debates on privacy and the freedom of information, is mainly because of Mark Klein. That would be a technician retired from AT&T for 22 years, who reported to the American authorities a few months ago that he suspected AT&T of allowing the National Security Agency to bug its customers' phone calls.
Customer Internet traffic via the WorldNet service provider was reportedly shunted to data-mining technology in a secret room at AT&T facilities. The data analysis technology was made by Narus.
The scandal doesn't seem to have bothered Narus much: it takes pride in various forums in the quality of its offerings. Its products enable ISPs and phone companies to monitor and manage their networks, detect illegal intrusions - and tap calls. Nor is Narus shy of declaring AT&T to be one of its customers.
Even though the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is striving to protect surfer privacy, has decided to sue the NSA in order to find out the scope of Washington's spying on the people, Narus still has nothing official to say about the affair.
If anything, Narus' management happily notes reports on its products, which are involved in countless weird and wonderful projects, including monitoring and blocking of voice and data over Internet. It proudly notes that its products are well used in countries such as China and Saudi Arabia, not really bastions of human rights.
It appears the Narus technology is used there to monitor surfing by the people, and blocking the use of Internet telephone technology such as Skype, which make monitoring communications very hard.
Narus says that its software can monitor and block Skype's communications protocol, other VoIP programs, P2P (peer to peer) networks (such as Kazaa), instant messaging software, email traffic and many other protocols too. When installed on the infrastructure of an Internet provider, it can do all that too, monitoring unbelievably huge amounts of data up to ten gigas per second.
Big in Tripoli
Another factoid in which Narus takes pride is its giant agreement with Giza Systems of Cairo. That Egyptian integration and communications company paid Narus several million dollars to install its bugging and blocking software on networks in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Egypt, and even in the Palestinian Authority.
But how is it that in the Middle East of 2006, Saudi Arabia, Libya and the like are buying technology developed by Israelis, funded by Israeli venture capital?
Walden Israel was one of the first backers behind Narus, but it says it's severed all contact. General Partner Roni Hefetz says it hasn't been involved in the company for years. However, the Walden international fund has picked up the slack, continuing to invest in Narus throughout. Narus even has a Walden man on its board.
Narus has morphed from an Israeli company into an American one. But it hasn't been sold or floated, despite earlier ambitions. Where are the Israelis? Their involvement is hard to pin down, including that of legendary founder Dr Ori Cohen, who'd been so happy to grant interviews; or the chief technology officer Stas Khirman. Did they abandon Internet bugging?
Apparently not. It is very possible that Cohen and Khirman are working at a startup that nobody is willing to talk about. A stealthy startup they helped found called Cright that has lots of employees in Israel and California, and which is reportedly about to avail itself of Ukrainian development talent too. Almost nobody has heard of Cright and nobody at all, including its distinguished investors, is willing to discuss what it does.
Sequoia Israel, the Rolls Royce of the technological venture capital world, is whispered to have invested $7 million in Cright together with Charles River. But the enigmatic startup is not mentioned on the Sequoia site, which otherwise describes the portfolio very thoroughly. Nor does the Charles River site mention it.
Nor could I glean any information about the company or about the Narus people manning it. Cright has a website, a naked one that reveals nothing: and has taken a vow of utter silence.
Market sources surmise that Cright is tight-lipped because what it does would spark outrage among surfers jealous of their privacy, which could culminate in migraines for the startup and its backers. The last thing these financiers need is bad press, especially as other products in which they invested, such as Jajah, are striving to gain adulation among the online community.
In today's online world, surfers can make the connection between investment in one company and in another. If Fund X invests in DevilIncarnate.com, and surfers find it out, they could hurt its investment in Angel.net.
The prying eye
But that is assuming that Ori Cohen and Stas Khirman are still working on products that analyze Internet traffic, and possibly, that this time their prying eye is looking at private surfers.
Industry sources in the know claim they're harnessing Israeli developers to develop a DRM product designed for installation at Internet providers, which will among other things frustrate file sharing and peer-2-peer networks. These sources say Cright (could that be short for copyright?) is supposed to filter P2P networks, to monitor and analyze files being shared, and possibly to shut down errant P2P network, or at least to block certain content.
In other words, if may be a new twist on the old trick of monitoring the Internet's main line, analyzing content, and interfering with it, just as Narus says it does in Saudi Arabia.
Cright's ambitions may be disclosed by the appointment of Ed Kozel as its CEO. Kozel hails from Cisco and Yahoo. But isn't Ori Cohen Cright's CEO? I don't know, or maybe they're both co-CEOs, maybe the company has two CEOs because it's going in two different directions at once.
If I had to guess, I'd guess that Cright means to launch some product related to online advertising. To guess on, I'd think it connects financed ads or links to personal content that Cright uncovers using its data mining capacities. Could that be? Selling ads based on breaking down data from traffic? I think it could.
But we can continue to merrily play detective for a few more weeks, until somebody tells us something.