Tweets mightier than the sword – maybe not

In my last blog, on informational warfare, I asked the rhetorical question; “is the tweet mightier than the sword?” citing Libya (a week is a long time in politics), China and Iran, as countries which had curtailed the impact of social networking.

Catching up with my reading I found a recent article in New Scientist titled Dictatorship.com written by Evgeny Morozov. The author clearly makes the point that using tweets and Facebook makes it so easy for (all) governments to monitor traffic and for dictators to crack down on dissidents – the internet as a tool of repression.

It used to be that regimes would just block traffic and web-sites they didn’t like, or censor it as China did with Google. Now they have more tools available such as malware to spy on unsuspecting computer users, or distributed denial of service attacks. Russia allegedly used that to bring all the Estonian web-sites crashing just to remind them who their near neighbours were. Many of these attacks are believed to come from former soviet republics where no-longer stated-employed former KGB technology experts turned their hand to “private enterprise”.

The American and UK security services regularly warn about cyber-attacks on western companies. And let’s face it many of these come  from countries where we do business. Advice I saw for people doing business in China included buying a new laptop and a new phone with no personal data on it. And a friend tells me that when he visited China in 2002, whilst there were computer shops  they didn’t sell printers.

No sooner had I posted this when Google complained that China was interfering with its g-mail service. The interference is so sophisticated that it look like it is a fault at Google with people not being able to log on. The Chinese government has not commented.

And a couple of weeks after I wrote this James Dyson was accusing chinese students at UK universities of stealing technology secrets and even leaving behind software to continue the process after they have returned to China.

But it seems we in the west are just as culpable in other ways. The Egyptian government was able to monitor and intercept traffic passing though their networks thanks to “deep packet inspection technology” sold to state-owned Telecomm Egypt by US firm Narus. Narus is owned by Boeing, that well-known US defence contractor so I may have read too many spy books but it wouldn’t surprise me if one of those US 3-letter agencies hadn’t slipped in a little piece of software of their own.

The shock for me was learning that Nokia Siemens had sold censorship and surveillance technology to Iran for which they were condemned by the European Parliament. I used to hold up Nokia as a values-led company but not any more. And then it appears that Ericsson sold technology to suppress political dissent to the oppressive regime in Belarus. Not a good track record for the Nordic countries.

And then of course there is facial recognition software, tagging all your online friends. Political refugees from the Soviet Union would often change their names once abroad so their families might be spared punishment. Once tagged there is no point in doing that.

And thus to Facebook and Twitter. Despite bragging about their contribution to democracy, neither have signed up to the Global Network Initiative, a group of companies,civil organisations, and academics committed to upholding human rights and freedom of expression. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have all joined. Facebook even systematically deletes accounts because the users use pseudonyms (no good for marketing I guess).

Perhaps we should go back to the cold war approach when Radio Free Europe sponsored by the CIA broadcast  news and “decadent” music to the Soviet Union to show them what they were missing. Modern music wouldn’t do the job but we could swamp the dictatorships’ systems with tweets. My choice would be the top most self-obsessed ones; Stephen Fry (narcissistic would-be lovey), Sarah Brown (loyal but deluded wife of our last Prime Minister), and Richard Bacon (irritating BBC Radio 5 presenter). And you could include Sarah Palin as she’s sure to confuse them with her grasp of global politics.

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