Online censorship: US company Sandvine equipped Russia with deep packet inspection

Online censorship: US company Sandvine equipped Russia with deep packet inspection
Written by insideindyhomes

Canadian-American company Sandvine, owned by Silicon Valley investment firm Francisco Partners, has been providing deep packet inspection (DPI) systems to Russian telecom operators for years. According to critics, the network technology, also known as “Internet nude scanners,” encroaches deeply on the basic rights of users and can be used for censorship.

Sandvine was founded in 2001 in Waterloo, Canada. The network supplier initially tried in vain for years to sell its own DPI systems to leading telecommunications providers in Russia. Conditions from both the Canadian and Russian governments initially prevented a deal. In addition, potential customers wanted to use the technology to monitor the messaging service Telegram, which Sandvine was unable to do at the time.

In 2017 Francisco Partners bought the company. Among other things, the investor owns parts of the Israeli NSO Group, which programs the state trojan Pegasus, which has been decried as a “monster”. Francisco Partners combined Sandvine with Procera Networks, another DPI marketer in its portfolio. This had already gained a foothold in Russia in 2012 and managed to have its devices installed in telecommunications networks across the country.

At meetings and product demonstrations in Moscow in 2018, representatives from Sandvine then again promoted the benefits of deep packet inspection, according to US financial service Bloomberg. They explained to interested parties that this could block or slow down access to certain websites, determine the whereabouts of certain people and support local prosecutors. The news agency relies on company documents that they were able to see.

Sandvine eventually struck deals to sell its Internet scanners to two telecom operators, according to internal filings. These are Megafon, the second largest Russian mobile operator, and Tele2 Russia, a company controlled by the Russian government.

Since Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, Sandvine has scaled back its own operations in Russia and halted all sales to the giant empire, a company spokesman told Bloomberg. The company’s equipment was only used on site for billing and quality of service control.

Access providers are increasingly using DPI for traffic management, civil society organizations, scientists and companies from 15 countries complained in 2019. The technology could be used to screen data packets, discriminate against services and spy on user behavior. Since domain names, web addresses and other Internet resources used can be examined in this way, sensitive statements can be made about political and religious beliefs, sexual preferences or personal health.

Sandvine never agreed to provide censorship tools to Russia, the spokesman stressed. If a provider had tried to reconfigure the technology for this purpose, it would have been considered abuse and the contract would have been terminated. However, around the time the offerings were launched in Russia, the outfitter’s technical director, Alexander Haväng, conceded to its internal ethics committee that it was unable to prevent customers from using the web-blocking technology .

In the summer of 2020, Bloomberg reported that the government of Belarus used Sandvine systems to restrict access to external news and social media sites during the disputed presidential election. The company then severed ties with the country. A later Bloomberg analysis revealed that Sandvine equipment was used to block an LGBTQ website in Jordan, independent news sites in Egypt and social media in Azerbaijan.

Such deals by the company made it clear that exports of US technology needed to be more closely monitored, pointed out Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia. The US Department of Commerce recently passed a rule controlling the export of DPI systems that could enable “large-scale government surveillance.” Last year, the EU introduced stricter export regulations for such “dual-use” goods, which in principle serve civil and military purposes.

The civil rights organization Access Now called on Sandvine on Friday to “immediately withdraw from Russia all technology that could be used for censorship and surveillance”. She appealed to the US government to launch a full investigation into the outfitter’s activities there and in other countries with human rights violations and to introduce stricter export regulations. The first companies to be held accountable are those that facilitated the suppression of critical voices.


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