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Keeping tabs on an entire population is still reserved for the most financially dedicated despots, according to a Brookings Institution report. The catch, however, is that costs are dropping quickly. Dictators will soon find tracking every word and deed to be well within budget, but even at today's higher rates, there seems no shortage of companies willing to help.
If you pride yourself on owning a responsible portfolio, you should take a long, hard look at companies exposing any nation's people to Big Brother's watchful eye.
The tech behind the curtain
Last year's Arab Spring offered the world a dramatic, and often very personal, glimpse into repressive regimes. It's no surprise that Gadhafi's Libya had a heavy hand and watchful eye on the people's Internet use, but the dictator's fall opened the door to the control room, so to speak. Similar revelations have occurred on Syrian and Chinese spying efforts, and much of the technology behind the tracking is now publicly known.
Looking over your shoulder in Libya
Many Libyan-linked cyber-surveillance companies are foreign-based. Amesys, a unit of French firm Bull SA, provided technological and logistical support to the Gadhafi government, including training manuals and intrusive deep packet inspection software. Chinese telecom ZTE and South Africa's VASTech also figure prominently in the former regime's tracking efforts.
On the other side of the coin, freedom-loving Libyans made good use of Microsoft's encrypted chat service Skype to evade watchful eyes and curious ears. Many revolutionaries also posted calls to arms on YouTube, which became a prime Gadhafi censorship target. However, neither is immune to determined prying, and Skype's vaunted security might already be cracked.
Stalk like an Egyptian
One company fingered (but vindicated) for a Libyan connection was Boeing (NYSE: BA ) through its Internet traffic monitoring subsidiary Narus. However, the company isn't off the hook. Narus, which supplies deep packet inspection equipment and monitoring software, has been tied to the deposed Mubarak government, Pakistani telecom operators, and Saudi Arabia, none known for championing openness.
Spy times in Syria
NetApp (Nasdaq: NTAP ) found itself in a PR and legal imbroglio after its archival solutions (think storing your emails) were used by an Italian contractor to set up a spying op for Syria's al-Assad government. Recently acquired Blue Coat Systems (Nasdaq: BCSI ) also found itself under the microscope when the U.S. government discovered that its tracking and censorship technology might have wound up in Syrian hands.
For their part, both companies deny they've sold to Syria, a smart legal move given that U.S. sanctions forbid it. The companies can only do so much to prevent their tools from falling into the wrong hands -- but the existence of such tools all but guarantees that they will, one way or another. Many will say that the only answer is no cyber-surveillance at all, but once the snowball starts rolling it becomes very hard to stop.
Censoring Chinese citizens makes cents
Last, and possibly most well-reported, is Cisco's (Nasdaq: CSCO ) sale of surveillance equipment to the Chinese government. The networking company isn't making any friends with its cozy Chinese relationships, as it was sued a month prior to the megasale for what amounts to "accessory to snooping." No one can say with certainty what the cameras and equipment will be used for, but odds are against a Chinese Truman Show reenactment.
What can you do?
Freedom-conscious investors should take a long look at companies supplying such tracking and restricting solutions, whether or not they ultimately end up in a despot's hands. The plummeting costs of technology also make this a dubious windfall for any company over the long term. The Brookings research estimated that Syria would only need to spend $2.5 million to track every phone call made by every Syrian over the age of 14 for a year. Analyzing such data would be extra, but the cost of storage will be a tenth as much by 2016, and comparatively more sophisticated (and more oppressive) analytics are likely to be operating at rather lower prices.
As the old saying goes, you can spy on some of the people all of the time, or all of the people some of the time... but what happens when you want to spy on everyone 24/7? You're going to have to pay up -- at least for now. As costs keep falling, the only real winners in this race will be the dictators, both known and aspiring.
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