Sunday, February 07, 2010

Police-state watches Facebook

By Namini Wijedasa - The switchboard operator at the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) refreshingly answered the call on the first ring. But it went downhill from there.

On the back of reports that the government planned to actively monitor Internet use - including activities on Facebook and Twitter - this reporter telephoned the TRC to ask what, specifically, officials were looking for. If the state was tightening its surveillance, surely users have a right to know.

The operator transferred this reporter to one Bandula at the TRC’s public relations division who helpfully suggested that I might have spoken to S. Gunananda had he been in office that day. Unfortunately, he was away in Kandy for the ‘Deyata Kirula’ exhibition. As an alternative he suggested that I speak to M.C.M. Farook who handled the subject. Farook refused to speak, suggesting instead that we make a formal application for information from Nelum Jayaweera, the director of economic affairs.

After obtaining a mobile number from Bandula, this reporter telephoned Jayaweera who said he was in Kandy (and consequently could not answer any questions) and to telephone R.G.H.K. Ranatunga of the TRC. Ranatunga said I should speak to the new Director General, Anusha Pelpita, who was yet to take up his new appointment at the commission.

I had kicked off this marathon of telephone calls earlier that morning by contacting Pelpita, the former director of government information, to afford him the privilege of revealing what he knew about the state’s plans to pounce on Internet users. Pelpita said he didn’t know yet and politely cut off my call by saying the minister was on another line. He promised to call back and I’m still waiting.

Taboo, questionable

Nobody at the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka — which is purportedly staffed with officers suitably versed in their profession - would officially tell this reporter what or how the government would set about monitoring Internet users and which topics or subjects were considered taboo or questionable.

It became clear that their refusal to answer such straightforward questions were more the result of restrictive policies regarding the public’s right to information rather than shortcomings in their respective competencies. They did not speak because they were not required to exercise transparency. Rather, it was considered their legally enforceable duty to keep information on ‘sensitive’ issues out of the public domain, despite the people’s right to know.

This newspaper got more clarity from Lakshman Hulugalle, the director general of the Media Centre for National Security. Asked which Internet activities the government wished to eradicate, he replied: “If you go through the Internet, SMS and emails, a lot of damage was done over the last one month by circulating rumours and unproved allegations.”

About the president? “We are not talking only about the Rajapksa family or about a single political party,” he insisted. “Even if a government official has something bogus circulated about him, he has no way of answering or correcting it. There is a way of criticizing people. Once the damage is done, it is difficult to correct it. We can’t allow these people to do whatever they want. We want to go into these details, find out the people behind this and stop it.”

Last week, LAKBIMAnEWS exclusively reported that the TRC is already monitoring user activities on Facebook. An authoritative source revealed that the government was worried about ‘false notes’ on Facebook criticizing the result of the presidential election and openly doubting its legitimacy. The source said the TRC had already tracked down some IP addresses of users spreading such allegations and that a team from a Chinese company was assisting the commission.


Questioned about the technicalities of how monitoring - and eventually censorship or regulation - would take place, Hulugalle said it was too early to explain the mechanisms. Asked whether Chinese experts were in Sri Lanka, he replied: “That’s why I said it’s too early to give all the details and the mechanism. We are working on it.”

Several aspects of the government’s intended action remain unclear. For instance, would the Internet activity of members, supporters or campaign directors of the ruling alliance also be scrutinized? Will such persons be penalized for ‘discrediting’ or spreading ‘unsubstantiated allegations’ about opposition members? If it is mudslinging over the Internet that the government is worried about, there was plenty of that on both sides.

Does the state also aim to stamp out legitimate political discussions that are an integral part of a person’s inalienable rights? For instance, would a debate over the election results be taboo? Would it be ‘illegal’ or ‘unacceptable’ to question the margin by which President Rajapaksa won?

Is the move to regulate the Internet the work of a government that is admissibly concerned about scurrilous ‘information’ concocted to achieve certain political ends? Or is this the work of a government which recently recognized the Internet as a power that could shake its supremacy by relaying the truth to its voters?
Would a paranoid government soon treat dissent - a key outlet for which is the Internet - as intolerable? Already Internet sites that cause the state displeasure are blocked while others are interrupted from time to time. Is this regime going the way of China?

How does the govt. do it?

To what extent is the Sri Lanka government monitoring our Internet activity and how do they do it? LAKBIMAnEWS interviewed an expert on the subject.

Dr. Chandana Gamage, senior computer science lecturer at the University of Moratuwa, monitoring said it is “very easy” to monitor the Internet. Individuals do it, companies and organizations do it and governments do it. “We have to always take it for granted that there is monitoring going on,” he maintained. “We just can’t assume that nobody is listening to our conversations. Also, in a period of high political activity, such as what we recently saw with the Internet being used quite widely by everyone involved, I would assume that monitoring also increased.”

“If you want to see if somebody is accessing a particular site,” said Dr. Gamage, “you can do so but the level of tracking depends on the resources you can afford.”
According to Gamage, it is accepted that government should monitor communications for reasons of public security, to nab paedophiles and other criminals or to detect attacks on financial institutions. This is generally done through collaboration with ‘computer emergency teams’ or CERTs. There are two here - Sri Lanka CERT (a government-run venture under the Information and Communication Technology Agency) and the TechCERT, a private sector team.

Governments also scrutinize the net for reasons of national security mainly through cooperation with national intelligence agencies working to stamp out terrorism. For instance, the agency of one country could ask the agency of another country to help nab a suspicious e-mailer living there. Finally, individuals, organizations, companies and governments might also initiate monitoring for ‘special reasons’.
Asked how Facebook could be monitored, Dr. Gamage said you could go through the pages generally to find key words, people’s login names, etc, and thereafter monitor local Internet traffic to see if such the key words are present.

“All content on the Internet is relayed in IP packets and you can find the key words in those packets,” he explained. “Powerful computers scan the traffic for the key words. There are computer programmes that can filter messages and emails, narrowing down the traffic even further. Nevertheless, the volume of information is huge and although computers are doing the scanning and monitoring, it must ultimately pass through a human to be processed.”

The cooperation of the ISP is necessary. The service providers are bound by local laws and must divulge information on a court order. But according to the Computer Crimes Act of 2007, it is possible for police to request information from ISPs pending a court order.

Dr. Gamage said that the users can protect their communication by using encrypted email. For a state to crack these, they would have to request the ISP to provide the text. Even Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo are prone to hacking. Google recently complained of an attack originating from China.

© Lakbima News

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