Netsweeper latest Western company to aid Pakistan's filtering and surveillance network

News & Analysis
Netsweeper latest Western company to aid Pakistan's filtering and surveillance network

The government of Pakistan has repeatedly shown it is relentless when it comes to deploying measures to censor and spy on its own citizens. Today, a report released by Citizen Lab reveals another repressive tool being used to control and prevent information being accessed on the internet -- this time with help from the Canadian web-filtering company, Netsweeper.

According to the report "O Pakistan, We Stand on Guard for Thee: An Analysis of Canada-based Netsweeper’s Role in Pakistan’s Censorship Regime", internet filtering software provided by Netsweeper has been installed on the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL)'s network, the country's largest telecommunications company that also operates the Pakistan Internet Exchange Point. Citizen Lab's report shows that the technology has been used for the purposes of social and political filtering, including websites of secessionist movements, sensitive religious topics, and independent media. 

This is not the first time Pakistan has looked to the West to help expand its censorship and surveillance regime. Narus, an American company, has long been a supplier of deep packet inspection technology to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, allowing the agency to conduct mass surveillance on its networks. The sophisticated combination of surveillance and filtering technology used in Pakistan is frightening, and denies its citizens their right to privacy and freedom of expression. Today's revelations, once again, raise questions about the complicity of Western companies in human rights abuses by foreign governments.

'Plans to push the country's digital rights into the dark corridors of oppression"

As more people come online in Pakistan, the vast majority of them will be faced with an internet that filters political speech and open discourse. Though Pakistan has a low level of broadband penetration -- less than 1 percent -- PTCL has a 60 percent share of this growing market. Since PTCL also maintain a leading position in Pakistan as the infrastructure provider to other telecom operators and corporate customers of the country, encountering Netsweeper will become a near-universal experience for anyone accessing the internet within the country.

Some of the most popular websites in the world have been filtered by Netsweeper's software, or other blocking mechanisms in Pakistan. Users in Pakistan reported that Tumblr had been blocked in some regions of Pakistan in May this year, including Balochistan and Sindh, two regions where secessionist movements are heavily situated. YouTube continues to be blocked in the country too. There have also been instances of Twitter and Facebook being filtered for periods of time.

Privacy International's partner organisation, Bytes 4 All, said that it was "shameful" to have these technologies in place, ones that "silence citizens expression and basic freedoms." 

"Worryingly, this year, the authorities have reverted back to their destructive plans to push the country's digital rights into the dark corridors of oppression by silently enforcing sophisticated technologies of Internet filtering and surveillance."

This is the first documented report of Netsweeper's software being used in Pakistan, a discovery which continues the Canadian company's run of dubious practices. Netsweeper software has been found in the UAE, Qatar, Yemen and Kuwait. It has also worked alongside Telstra in Australia, accepting web traffic of Telstra customers without their consent.

Growing body of evidence

It is becoming more and more apparent that Pakistan's surveillance and filtering of all communication networks is expanding in an effort to control all forms of communication to the detriment of fundamental freedoms. Citizen Lab's report adds to an increasing body of evidence, gathered over the past few years, that nearly all modes of communication within Pakistan are subject to some level of monitoring and control, from text filtering to network monitoring to remote access trojans.

Since December 2011, there have been allegations that the American firm Narus have supplied deep packet inspection software to aid in the monitoring of phone and internet networks in Pakistan.

Narus has a long history in the surveillance trade, having sold its product to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and telecoms companies belonging to the Chinese government. While its technology can be used for purposes such as identifying security threats, repressive regimes often abuse the software to target dissidents and activists.

That's why in early 2012, after Pakistan's government publicly advertised their intention to significantly expand their existing censorship and surveillance system, civil society groups began a campaign to get companies to publicly commit to not participate in the programme. Many companies who had the technical capability to build a national filtering system met that request, including Websense, Cisco, McAfee, and Verizon. Some companies were silent, one of which was Netsweeper.

I guess now we know why.