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Blue Coat, Skype and QQ named despots' best friends

Reporters Without Borders slams "enemies of the internet"

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Blue Coat Systems, Microsoft’s Skype and Chinese IM service QQ have all helped repressive states labelled "enemies of the internet" to snoop on their citizens, according to a new cyber censorship report from press freedom group Reporters Without Borders.

Given China’s increasingly rigorous censorship of web-borne content and general crackdown on freedom of expression online through VPN blocking and other measures, it’s perhaps not a great surprise that it makes the group’s 2013 report as an "enemy of the internet". Bahrain, Iran, Syria and Vietnam "won" the same status.

Aside from the activities of the state-maintained Great Firewall, the report also draws attention to the self-policing work which private technology providers are required by law to carry out in the Middle Kingdom.

The hugely popular QQ app run by domestic web giant Tencent, for example, was branded “a giant Trojan horse” by allowing the authorities to monitor conversations by “certain keywords and expressions” and easily traceable user numbers.

The company also operates a QQ International service for users outside of China. Although the report did not specifically address whether its surveillance concerns extend to this service, if the QQ International servers are located in China, Tencent would technically have to comply with the same rules.

Tencent was recently forced to explain itself after it appeared to censor messages on its Whatsapp-like WeChat service – albeit in Chinese characters – even though they were being sent by users outside of China.

The company later claimed this was down to a “technical glitch”.

Reporters Without Borders also highlighted how the Chinese language version of Skype, made available through local media partner TOM, automatically monitors the text chats of its users and blocks any messages containing specific keywords before saving a copy of the offending message to a TOM-Skype server.

These allegations have been around since a 2008 OpenNet Initiative Asia report but are more relevant now given Skype parent company Microsoft’s advocacy of online freedom of expression.

Bloomberg has a detailed analysis of how researcher Jeffrey Knockel uncovered Skype’s role in China’s online surveillance activities. His research can be found here.

As Skype automatically defaults to the TOM-Skype page inside the Great Firewall – which looks pretty similar to the original – some of China’s 96 million-odd users of the service may be using the local version unaware that their security is at risk, the report claimed.

For its part, Microsoft sent The Reg the following statement, re-iterating that Skype is a JV in China:

As the majority partner in the joint venture, TOM Online has established procedures to meet its obligations under local laws. Even as a minority partner we understand we also have responsibilities. Microsoft is working to adopt appropriate changes that can be made to address the issues raised. We understand the passion our users have for Skype and are committed to taking concrete steps to further increase transparency and accountability.

For the first time, the Reporters Without Borders report also highlighted five corporate “enemies of internet”, which it claims “all sell products that are liable to be used by governments to violate human rights and freedom of information”.

The report claims these firms either sold direct to authoritarian regimes and therefore “must have known that their products could be used to spy on journalists, dissidents and netizens”, or failed to track their products properly, which “means they did not care if their technology was misused and did not care about the vulnerability of those who defend human rights”.

Information security vendor Blue Coat Systems is slammed for “providing filtering and censorship devices for countries such as Syria and Burma”.

The report also singles out the Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) capabilities of BlueCoat's PacketShaper product as problematic, although if DPI is a requirement for getting in the report we can expect an avalanche of additional security vendor being added to the “enemy” list in the future.

Blue Coat sent a statement to Cnet which basically repeats the arguments of this corporate blog post from February.

In short, it claims that the vendor “respects and supports freedom of expression”, respects the laws of the countries in which it does business, and does not design “products or condone their use to suppress human rights”.

Also singled out in the report are French spyware firm Amesys, which is claimed to have sold to the Gadaffi regime; UK/German spyware maker Gamma International; Italian firm Hacking Team, which provides “lawful interception” kit; and German firm Trovicor. ®

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