October 29, 2011 | By Jillian York

Blue Coat: Concern for Criminal Penalties, Not Human Rights

In early September, EFF was among the first to report on evidence published by activist collective Telecomix that Blue Coat technology was being used by the Syrian government to conduct surveillance.  Following a release of more detailed log files as well as a more detailed report from our friends at Global Voices Advocacy, Mother Jones produced a detailed report, followed shortly by other publications.  Prominent security expert Bruce Schneier then offered his take, stating: "Bet you anything that the Syrian Blue Coat products are registered, and that they receive all the normal code and filter updates."

Blue Coat is, like other American companies, restricted from directly exporting its technology to Syria due to export controls enacted by the US Departments of Commerce and Treasury.  As a result, the news that the company's routers--which can be used to conduct surveillance and to censor websites--were being used in Syria prompted the US Department of State to conduct an investigation.

While at first Blue Coat denied knowledge of their products being used in Syria, the company flip-flopped in a report published Saturday in the Wall Street Journal, confirming that thirteen of its appliances shipped to Dubai last year ended up in Syria and are "transmitting automatic status messages back to the company [while censoring] the Syrian Web."  Blue Coat senior vice president Steve Daheb told the Journal that the company "[doesn't] want our products to be used by the government of Syria or any other country embargoed by the United States."

In other words, Blue Coat is only concerned about breaking the law, not about helping in human rights violations.  Depending on the program, criminal penalties for violating OFAC regulations can range from $50,000 to $10 million with imprisonment ranging from 10 to 30 years for "willful violations."

Given Blue Coat's early denials, we're skeptical that their violation wasn't willful.  As Andrew McLaughlin put it in a tweet, "Shame on Blue Coat. Their denials re knowingly assisting Syria censorship don't ring true."

Blue Coat's blatant lack of concern for human rights is alarming.  There are far more repressive regimes in the world than there are embargoed countries.  Several United States allies, including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, are also using Blue Coat systems for censorship and surveillance.  But Blue Coat is surely unconcerned; after all, exporting to those countries isn't against the law; it just helps violate the human rights of the people living under those regimes.

Meanwhile, the list of Syrians detained for blogging or other online activities continues to grow.

As we wrote last week, we believe that voluntary standards such as the ones we've proposed, should be adopted by companies.  But, if companies don't act in the interest of human rights, regulations don't seem very far off.

Your move, Blue Coat.


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