Science, Tech & Environment

Monitoring technology used to suppress dissent

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Western companies like Nokia Siemens Networks have allowed their technology to be used to suppress dissent.

Story from PRI's The World. Listen to audio above for full report.

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Throughout the recent protests in the Arab world, new technology has been hailed as a way to fight back against oppressive regimes. But there is a dark side of that technology, too. A recent article from Bloomberg News details how Western companies like Nokia Siemens Networks or NSN have allowed their technology to be used to suppress dissent. According to the report, NSN maintained monitoring technology used by the government in Bahrain during its crackdown earlier this year. 

"This surveillance would probably be applauded by those in the West if it was used to break up a terrorist cell or if it were used to rescue someone who was kidnapped," according to Rob Faris of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. "We would probably be very happy with it. In this circumstance it seems to have crossed the line to a human rights infringement, and it’s very troubling."

If technology companies wanted to protect protesters from this kind of human rights infringement, "they would not sell their technology to repressive governments," Faris told The World. That's not as easy as it sounds, though. The issue depends on "how you define a repressive government and how do you foresee what a government is going to do with that technology once it has its hands on it."

NSN isn't the only technology company to run afoul of human rights activists. Faris points out that CISCO got bad publicity for selling routers to China that were used for internet filtering. Many in the companies argue that people are still better off with the technology, rather than without it.

"I think in my estimation has had a positive impact on access to information, human rights, and those sorts of things," Faris says. "There is a darker side to it and we're seeing it here. And it's a little bit difficult to understand how companies selling such technologies could ensure that these technologies are only used for good and not for ill."

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PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.More about The World.

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