Is a U.S. Company Assisting Egyptian Surveillance?

Boeing subsidiary Narus reports on its Web site that it “protects and manages” a number of worldwide networks, including that of Egypt Telecom. A recent IT World article entitled “Narus Develops a Scary Sleuth for Social Media” reported on a Narus product called Hone last year:

Hone will sift through millions of profiles searching for people with similar attributes — blogger profiles that share the same e-mail address, for example. It can look for statistically likely matches, by studying things like the gender, nationality, age, location, home and work addresses of people. Another component can trace the location of someone using a mobile device such as a laptop or phone.

Media advocate Tim Karr reports that “Narus provides Egypt Telecom with Deep Packet Inspection equipment (DPI), a content-filtering technology that allows network managers to inspect, track and target content from users of the Internet and mobile phones, as it passes through routers on the information superhighway.”

It’s very hard to know how Narus’s technology was used in Egypt before the country pulled the plug on its Internet connectivity, or how it’s being used now. Narus is declining comment.

So what’s to be done?

Narus and its parent, the Boeing Company, have no right to their business with the U.S. government. On our behalf, Congress is entitled to ask about Narus’s/Boeing’s assistance to the Mubarak regime in Egypt. If contractors were required to refrain from assisting authoritarian governments’ surveillance as a condition of doing business with the U.S. government, that seems like the most direct way to dissuade them from providing top-notch technology capabilities to regimes on the wrong side of history.

Of course, decades of U.S. entanglement in the Middle East have created the circumstance where an authoritarian government has been an official “friend.” Until a few weeks ago, U.S. unity with the Mubarak regime probably had our government indulging Egypt’s characterization of political opponents as “terrorists and criminals.” It shouldn’t be in retrospect that we learn how costly these entangling alliances really are.

Chris Preble made a similar point ably on the National Interest blog last week:

We should step back and consider that our close relationship with Mubarak over the years created a vicious cycle, one that inclined us to cling tighter and tighter to him as opposition to him grew. And as the relationship deepened, U.S. policy seems to have become nearly paralyzed by the fear that the building anger at Mubarak’s regime would inevitably be directed at us.

We can’t undo our past policies of cozying up to foreign autocrats (the problem extends well beyond Egypt) over the years. And we won’t make things right by simply shifting — or doubling or tripling — U.S. foreign aid to a new leader. We should instead be open to the idea that an arms-length relationship might be the best one of all.