Since I broke the story here on Jan. 28 that the U.S. company Narus has been selling Internet spying software to Egypt, members of Congress, other government officials and Americans have become increasingly alarmed. Now some are calling for investigations.
On Thursday, during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Reps. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Bill Keating (D-MA) grilled Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg on the sale of this Internet spying technology to an Egyptian Internet provider controlled by the Mubarak regime.
To recap, Narus is a Sunnyvale, California, Internet surveillance and filtering company begun by Israeli security experts, and subsequently bought by Boeing. The company has nefarious links to the NSA, and to AT&T efforts to monitor phone communications domestically.
Among Narus' many cyber-sleuthing products is one called "Hone," which can filter through billions of packets of online data to target individuals on social networks and then link that information to their "VOIP conversations, biometrically identify someone's voice or photograph and then associate it with different phone numbers." Those using cell phones or Wi-Fi connections can then be located geographically.
Narus has sold similar spying technology, not only to Egypt, but also to telecom authorities in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, countries known for their brutal repression of political dissidents.
Over the last two weeks, other journalists -- including those at the San Francisco Chronicle and Seattle Times -- have asked Narus to respond to our report, but the company has refused to comment. Al Jazeera sent a correspondent and camera crew to their offices to be turned away at the door. Watch the video of that encounter.
In yesterday's hearing, Rep. Smith had the following exchange with Deputy Secretary Steinberg:
Rep. Smith: I'd like to ask you about a very disturbing report that an American company, Narus, has sold the Egyptian Government what is called Deep Packet Inspection technology, highly advanced technology that allows the purchasers to search the content of emails as they pass through the Internet routers.
The report is from an NGO called Free Press and it is based on information that Narus itself has revealed about its business... I would like to know what we know about this company - and it is part of Boeing, recently bought. What can you tell us about Narus and this invasion of privacy in the Internet?
Deputy Secretary Steinberg: ... I'm unfamiliar with the company that you have identified but I'd be happy to see what we know about this.
Smith: Could you dig into that and get back to the committee? It's very important. It goes to the whole issue of increasingly that U.S. Corporations are enabling dictatorships... It is an awful tool of repression and Narus, according to these reports, is enabling this invasion of privacy...
Rep. Keating continued the questioning, going so far as to say that "people are losing their lives based on this technology."
Keating called on Steinberg to investigate American companies that sell this sort of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology overseas. He expressed particular concern about a "company in California [that] sold the Egyptian state-run Internet provider the technology to monitor the Internet allowing the Egyptian government to crack down on dissent."
Deputy Secretary Steinberg, again, promised to follow up.
In a subsequent press statement, Keating pledged to introduce legislation "that would provide a national strategy to prevent the use of American technology from being used by human rights abusers."
In particular, Keating wants to create a requirement that DPI companies strike "end-user monitoring agreements" with their overseas buyers that would help ensure that the technology does not fall into the hands of repressive regimes intent stifling free speech and repressing Internet protesters.
"We should have the same safeguards -- such as end user monitoring agreements -- that we do when we sell weapons abroad," according to Keating. Stay tuned for his legislation that could do just that.