Containing Weapons of Mass Surveillance

President Obama is on the right track with Monday's executive order, but the United States needs to get tougher on the global digital arms race.

As the bodies continue to pile up in Syria, the Assad government's war against its own people extends beyond physical space to cyberspace. Not satisfied with pervasive surveillance through Internet and mobile networks -- conducted with the help of Western companies -- the Syrian government also conducts outright cyber-warfare against its own people.

The attacks started in earnest in February 2011, when the Syrian government suddenly removed long-standing blocks on social media websites including Facebook, Blogspot, and YouTube. Had President Bashar al-Assad suddenly become a free-speech advocate? Hardly. The real reason soon became clear: Government hackers launched what security experts call a "man in the middle" attack on Syrian Facebook users, inserting a false "security certificate" onto people's browsers when they tried to log into their Facebook accounts through the secure "https" version of the site. This attack enabled pro-government hackers to take over activists' accounts and gain access to their entire network of contacts.

In May, an organization called the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), a pro-government hacking group, emerged with its website hosted on computer servers belonging to the government-affiliated Syrian Computer Society. In June, Assad called it "a real army in virtual reality" -- the first time, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a head of state is known to have praised a hacking group directly.

The tactics used to infiltrate activists' computers and social-media accounts have grown increasingly sophisticated. In February, reports emerged about "Trojan" viruses being spread through social media, Skype, and e-mail, which among other things capture the infected computer's webcam, disable anti-virus notifications, record keystrokes, or capture passwords, sending them to a computer address connected to the state-run Syrian Telecommunications Establishment. A fake YouTube site hosting opposition videos attacked visitors' computers with a similar virus.

In an effort to thwart what he called a "malign use of technology" by the governments of Syria and Iran, on Monday U.S. President Barack Obama issued an executive order authorizing sanctions against individuals and entities that supply or aid governments' use of technology against their own people. One Syrian individual, two Syrian entities, and four Iranian entities were named as initial targets. Although the new sanctions have been hailed as a step in the right direction by human rights and other groups dedicated to online free expression and privacy, they leave some troubling questions unanswered:

What about U.S. and other Western companies aiding Syrian surveillance? All of the people and entities sanctioned this week are Iranian or Syrian. But what about companies and individuals from other countries, including the United States, that aid and abet surveillance in those countries?

Take, for example the case of the California-based Blue Coat Systems, Inc. Last October, the international activist group Telecomix published log files taken from 13 Blue Coat devices deployed by the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment to monitor and block users' activity. Facing scrutiny over apparent violation of a strict U.S. embargo against technology sales to Syria, Blue Coat later told the Wall Street Journal that these devices were shipped to a Dubai reseller that claimed the final destination as Iraq. In December, the U.S. Department of Commerce placed restrictions on a person and an entity in the United Arab Emirates for having sold the devices to Syria. But questions remain about what Blue Coat really knew or didn't know, because after installation in Syria the devices transmitted regular automatic status messages back to the company's computer servers. Blue Coat claims that it doesn't monitor the origin of such messages.*

Perhaps Blue Coat's management was genuinely unaware, and thus "the company" as an entity was unaware. But might it be possible to prove that certain individuals within the company did understand what was happening? If so, the text of the executive order appears to apply to them.

Many more companies could potentially be involved. On Monday, the Atlantic's John Hudson provided a substantial list of companies whose technology has recently been found in Syria: Hewlett-Packard and NetApp from the United States, the Dublin-based Cellusys, AreaSpA of Italy, and the British Creativity Software.

If and when companies like these -- or their subsidiaries or individual executives - are sanctioned under Monday's executive order, we will know that the Obama administration is serious about stemming the flow of Western-made surveillance technology to regimes with a clear track record of deploying it against their political opponents.

What about other sanctions that hurt Syrian activists? While sanctions against Iran and Syria are intended to constrain those countries' governments, they have had the unfortunate side effect of constraining activists' access to free online software and services used widely across the Middle East, including browsers, online chat applications, and online storage services. In February, on the occasion of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, the Treasury Department issued new guidelines specifying the types of free software and services that can legally be offered by U.S. companies to Iranian citizens. They failed to issue similar guidelines for Syria, however -- in part due to conflicting regulations from the Department of Commerce.

As a result, Syrian activists say, they remain hamstrung. "Activists have a hard time installing communication software like the plugin required to use Google's voice/video chat," the San Francisco-based Syrian blogger Anas Qtiesh told me. Google Earth, commonly used by activists in the region to plan protests and escape routes, is also blocked in Syria -- not by the authorities but by Google, whose lawyers do not want the company breaking U.S. sanctions. Activists then look for unofficial "third party" sites offering downloads, but these sites are often infected with malware of the type described at the beginning of this article. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an organization dedicated to protecting civil liberties online, has been following this issue closely and blames the U.S. government's "piecemeal" approach to sanctions and licenses for causing confusion among companies about what is or isn't legal.

What about other countries like Bahrain? It is "ridiculous," says the EFF's Jillian York, that the executive order "only covers Syria and Iran and not Bahrain." Like Syria, the government of Bahrain employs aggressive tactics to censor and monitor its people's online activity. Its human rights violations over the past year are well documented. In testimony to international lawyers, Bahraini torture victims have described being shown transcripts of their cell-phone text messages. Bloomberg reported in February that a Munich-based company called Trovicor helped the Bahraini government to install and maintain "monitoring centers" through which citizens' emails, instant-message chat sessions, and cell-phone text messages are intercepted.

The U.S. relationship with Bahrain is obviously more complicated than with Syria and Iran. Many other countries with which the United States has more positive strategic and trade relationships also use technology to repress their people. Thus the Internet rights group Access is calling on the Obama administration and Congress to adopt a "more robust legal framework" including "a process for sanctioning other countries such as Bahrain, preventing third parties from reselling technologies, and requiring companies to be transparent about who they are selling to and what processes they have in place to prevent their products and services from being used in the commission of human rights abuses." The challenge lies in determining what exactly that legal framework and sanctions process should look like.

Sanctions are hard to get right. Last month, I wrote about a bill currently before the U.S. House of Representatives called the Global Online Freedom Act, which among other things seeks to revise U.S. export control laws to forbid the export of censorship and surveillance technology to a list of "Internet-restricting countries" -- a list which one presumes would include more than Iran and Syria. However, the drafters of the bill, which has gone through many different iterations since it was first introduced in 2006, have had a tough time coming up with the right language that would avoid the type of collateral damage already created by existing sanctions. As Erica Newland of the Center for Democracy and Technology recently asked: "Can export controls be meaningfully extended in ways that reduce the spread of … 'weapons of mass surveillance' without diminishing the ability of dissidents to connect and communicate?"

Recognizing that the speed of technological innovation will likely always move light years faster than the speed of government, the EFF advocates a "Know Your Customer" program that could be implemented in a number of potential ways, through regulatory or legal action or through a voluntary framework if government action is not forthcoming. It would be structured in a similar way to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which is aimed at preventing U.S. companies from engaging in bribery around the world. EFF suggests two main components: The first would require transparency about where companies are doing business. The second involves a framework for companies to audit and keep track of their customers. Companies should have a due-diligence process to determine the likelihood that their technologies will be used to carry out human rights abuses before doing business with a particular country or regional distributor. "If these big companies can be expected not to get business through bribes even though some of their foreign competitors do," concludes the EFF, "it's reasonable to ask them not to conduct business that would result in enabling repression either."

President Obama has certainly taken a step in the right direction with Monday's executive order. But the executive branch and Congress will need to do much more if they want to stem electronic abuses against activists in Iran and Syria -- let alone anywhere else. It's time to take decisive action to stop American and other multinationals from aiding and abetting the wrong side in the global digital arms race.

*UPDATE: According to a Department of Commerce spokesperson, the investigation of Blue Coat is "ongoing." The spokesperson declined to provide further details.



What Sex Means for World Peace

The evidence is clear: The best predictor of a state's stability is how its women are treated.

In the academic field of security studies, realpolitik dominates. Those who adhere to this worldview are committed to accepting empirical evidence when it is placed before their eyes, to see the world as it "really" is and not as it ideally should be. As Walter Lippmann wrote, "We must not substitute for the world as it is an imaginary world."

Well, here is some robust empirical evidence that we cannot ignore: Using the largest extant database on the status of women in the world today, which I created with three colleagues, we found that there is a strong and highly significant link between state security and women's security. In fact, the very best predictor of a state's peacefulness is not its level of wealth, its level of democracy, or its ethno-religious identity; the best predictor of a state's peacefulness is how well its women are treated. What's more, democracies with higher levels of violence against women are as insecure and unstable as nondemocracies.

Our findings, detailed in our new book out this month, Sex and World Peace, echo those of other scholars, who have found that the larger the gender gap between the treatment of men and women in a society, the more likely a country is to be involved in intra- and interstate conflict, to be the first to resort to force in such conflicts, and to resort to higher levels of violence. On issues of national health, economic growth, corruption, and social welfare, the best predictors are also those that reflect the situation of women. What happens to women affects the security, stability, prosperity, bellicosity, corruption, health, regime type, and (yes) the power of the state. The days when one could claim that the situation of women had nothing to do with matters of national or international security are, frankly, over. The empirical results to the contrary are just too numerous and too robust to ignore.

But as we look around at the world, the situation of women is anything but secure. Our database rates countries based on several categories of women's security from 0 (best) to 4 (worst). The scores were assigned based on a thorough search of the more than 130,000 data points in the WomanStats Database, with two independent evaluators having to reach a consensus on each country's score. On our scale measuring the physical security of women, no country in the world received a 0. Not one. The world average is 3.04, attesting to the widespread and persistent violence perpetrated against women worldwide, even among the most developed and freest countries. The United States, for instance, scores a 2 on this scale, due to the relative prevalence of domestic violence and rape.

It's ironic that authors such as Steven Pinker who claim that the world is becoming much more peaceful have not recognized that violence against women in many countries is, if anything, becoming more prevalent, not less so, and dwarfs the violence produced through war and armed conflict. To say a country is at peace when its women are subject to femicide -- or to ignore violence against women while claiming, as Pinker does, that the world is now more secure -- is simply oxymoronic.

Gender-based violence is unfortunately ingrained in many cultures, so much so that it can take place not only during a woman's life but also before she is even born. On our scale measuring son preference and sex ratio, the world average is 2.41, indicating a generalized preference for sons over daughters globally. And in 18 countries, from Armenia to Vietnam, childhood sex ratios are significantly abnormal in favor of boys. The United Nations Population Fund suggests that, as of 2005, more than 163 million women were missing from Asia's population, whether through sex-selective abortion, infanticide, or other means. Demographer Dudley Poston of Texas A&M University has calculated that China will face a deficit of more than 50 million young adult women by the end of the decade. Think of the ways this imbalance will affect China's state stability and security -- and in turn its rise to world power -- in this century.

Other global indicators are equally disheartening. In family law, women are disadvantaged in areas such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. This inequity in turn serves as a foundation for violence against women, while also undercutting their ability to fend for themselves and their children. My colleagues and I found that the world's average score for inequity in family law is 2.06, indicating that most countries have laws that discriminate to a greater or lesser degree against women. And some of the countries in the Arab Spring, including populous Egypt, are actually poised to regress on this scale. Maternal mortality, meanwhile, clocks in globally at 2.45, a truly lamentable comment on state priorities and the value of female life.

Lastly, the inclusion of women's voices in decision-making bodies, as captured by the level of female participation in governments, measures an abysmal world average of 2.74. This is no surprise, given that the level of participation of women in government is less than 20 percent. But it's also true that some of the worst countries when it comes to the representation of women in national government include democracies such as Japan (13.4 percent in the Diet) and South Korea (14.7 percent), not to mention Hungary (8.8 percent). The United States is below average, with only 17 percent female participation in Congress. Ironically, when the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, it urged that these countries have a minimum of 25 percent female participation, and now both countries score higher than their invader on this indicator: Afghanistan's parliament is nearly 28 percent female, and Iraq's is just over 25 percent. In that one respect, the United States has done better by Afghan and Iraqi women than by its own.

The evidence of violence against women is clear. So what does it mean for world peace? Consider the effects of sex-selective abortion and polygyny: Both help create an underclass of young adult men with no stake in society because they will never become heads of households, the marker for manhood in their cultures. It's unsurprising that we see a rise in violent crime, theft, and smuggling, whereby these young men seek to become contenders in the marriage market. But the prevalence of these volatile young males may also contribute to greater success in terrorist recruiting, or even state interest in wars of attrition that will attenuate the ranks of these men. For instance, the sole surviving terrorist from the 2008 Mumbai attacks testified that he was persuaded by his own father to participate in order to raise money for the dower that he and his siblings needed in order to marry.

We also know through experimental studies that post-conflict agreements that are negotiated without women break down faster than those that do include women, and that all-male groups take riskier, more aggressive, and less empathetic decisions than mixed groups -- two phenomena that may lead to higher levels of interstate conflict.

On an even deeper level, the template for living with other human beings who are different from us is forged within every society by the character of male-female relations. In countries where males rule the home through violence, male-dominant hierarchies rule the state through violence. This was most poignantly expressed by male Iranian dissidents who, during the ill-fated 2009 Green Revolution, explained their decision to wear headscarves as a sign of protest against the regime -- and an act of solidarity with the women long oppressed by it. As one supporter of the protests explained it, "We Iranian men are late doing this.… If we did this when rusari [the headscarf] was forced on those among our sisters who did not wish to wear it 30 years ago, we would have perhaps not been here today." This is a profound statement: Men who see women as beings to be subjugated will themselves continue to be subjugated. Men who see women as equal and valued partners are the only men who have a true chance to win their freedom and enjoy peace.

In a promising sign, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has declared women's issues a central focus of American foreign policy, explaining in 2010 that "women's equality is not just a moral issue; it's not just a humanitarian issue; it is not just a fairness issue. It is a security issue," which, she added, is "in the vital interest of the United States." But given the overwhelming evidence that improving the security of women improves the security and stability of states, it is amazing that some still balk, suggesting that third parties are helpless before ingrained cultural practices. The most pressing example right now is Afghanistan, where senior U.S. officials looking toward the United States' 2014 departure state baldly, "Gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities." We cannot but assume that the situation of Afghan women will only get worse when U.S. troops leave -- Afghan women themselves tell us it will be. And how does that square with Clinton's view?

The United States is not impotent to assist Afghanistan's women, even as it leaves that benighted land. It can at least attempt to ensure a softer landing for them after 2014. Before the United States leaves, it could set up an asylum policy for Afghan women facing the threat of femicide, or a scholarship program to send the best and brightest female Afghan students to American universities. It could ensure that women are well represented in the peace jirga talks with the Taliban. It could encourage the pursuit of International Criminal Court indictments against top Taliban leaders who have ordered femicides. It could complete funding for a Radio Free Women of Afghanistan station and establish mosque-based female education. The United States could insist to the Afghan government that women's shelters not be taken over by the government. And it could continue to condition aid to Afghanistan on specific and measurable improvements for women there. Hopefully, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and others will actively investigate these possibilities.

The evidence is clear: The primary challenge facing the 21st century is to eliminate violence against women and remove barriers to developing their strength, creativity, and voices. A bird with one broken wing, or a species with one wounded sex, will never soar. We know that. Humans have experienced it for millennia -- and paid for it with rivers of blood and mountains of needless suffering. The countries of the world must try a different path, one that we have every empirical reason to believe will lead to greater well-being, prosperity, and security for the entire international system. Sex and world peace, then, with no question mark.