Commentary for Executive magazine
Nokia’s brand image is of two hands — one a child’s and one adult — reaching towards each other with the slogan: “Connecting People”; a nice image for a mobile phone manufacturer and service provider. But in a dozen countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the Finnish mobile phone giant’s joint subsidiary with the German company Siemens, Nokia Siemens Network (NSN), has been connecting people in a way that consumers were not expecting: with the mukhabarat, or secret police.
Dozens of pro-democracy activists arrested in Bahrain by mukhabarat following the uprising that began in February were presented with transcripts of text messages and phone calls that they had made. Detainees were puzzled as to how their communications had been intercepted and were being used as evidence against them. They were not aware of the monitoring systems that 12 countries in the MENA, according to a report by Bloomberg published last month, had bought software from NSN and its subsidiary, Trovicor, that enables governments to intercept phone calls, emails and text messages. Such surveillance software also allows the powers that be to create disinformation by changing the contents of written communications and to scan phone networks through voice-recognition and keyword-search software, in addition to remotely activating laptop webcams and microphones on mobile phones, according to Wired magazine.
The Bloomberg exposé of the usage of such technologies in Bahrain is a first during the MENA uprisings of this year. That websites were being monitored was well known, and people in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere have long been wary of what they said on the phone in case of a third, unwanted listener. But the level of interception and its usage by secret police is a concern not only for activists, protesters and the like but also for the very privacy of all people.
Furthermore, it is not an issue confined to Bahrain or the MENA. This follows the phone hacking scandal in Britain in July that reached the highest echelons of the police force, the offices of the prime minister as well as dozens of print publications, and add to this the news of Google’s cozy relations with not only Washington DC but also Beijing. This all comes on top of the revelations over the last decade about the joint American-British global surveillance system Echelon.
Such phone hacking and monitoring is a growing concern reminiscent of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, which depicts a society under the hyper-surveillance of “Big Brother”. The arguments given for such surveillance software in the hands of the state are acceptable when it comes to tracking terrorists, organized criminals and other deemed baddies, but, as always, it is how such technology is used, for what purpose and how you classify a “bad guy”. Inflicting human rights abuses on Bahraini activists for what they wrote and said via their mobile phone is not a shining example of what Trovicor calls in its website: “Making the world a safer place.” Safer for the Bahraini ruling elite perhaps, but not for its citizens.
Telling in the unveiling of Bahrain’s usage of Trovicor’s systems is the fact that it will most likely not cause the same outcry as when NSN was hauled over the coals in 2009 in the United States for providing the same technology to the Iranian government to snoop on protesters in the wake of the disputed presidential elections. What has become very clear this year in the region is that there are halal and haram revolutions, depending on the country’s relations with the US. Bahrain is of course in the latter category.
Conversely, Tehran’s usage of Trovicor’s systems and a “No to Nokia” international boycott for its indirect role in human rights abuses resulted in NSN selling Trovicor to Germany’s Perusa Partners Fund in 2009, although management, staff and equipment have remained largely the same. Meanwhile, NSN sales teams have been instrumental in the continued roll out of the service in the MENA.
By connecting and informing protestors and by distributing news and video updates from the streets, technology and social media have been key components in the successes of some of the uprisings throughout the region. Unfortunately, these same mediums are being used as a tool of autocracy. Just as governments should be held accountable for repressing their people, so too should corporations who facilitate such brutality.