Libya used state-of-the-art communications intelligence equipment to prop up Colonel Qadhafi's regime: this disclosure raises complex ethical questions

Earlier this year, as Islamist-led Libyan insurgents swept into Tripoli, fascinating new insights emerged into how Muammar Qadhafi's regime had used state-of-the-art communications intelligence equipment to shore up the murderous dystopia he had built.

The French firm Amesys, documents first reported by The Wall Street Journal showed, had supplied the regime with capabilities to intercept electronic traffic involving Libyan dissidents half-way across the world. The documents — in essence, operator training manuals — contained a list of targets, which had been redacted. But Owni, a, a French media group that partnered with The Hindu in the WikiLeaks-Spy Files investigation, succeeded in using electronic means to recover the data.

Libya's intelligence services were targeting the e-mail and phone communications of several Libyan dissidents in the United Kingdom and the United States — as well as, in a bizarre twist, the respected lawyer Jeffrey Smele who represents, among others, a key Spy Files partner, the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Indians have a special reason to pay attention to the Amesys story: there is reason to believe that its employees may have been used to manufacture equipment supplied to India — or, worse, to hostile states targeting the nation's communications infra structure. Hindi and Tamil are among the 38 languages which the brochure says the technology can automatically recognise in intercepted conversations, and turn from voices captured on hard disk into transcribed text.

Amesys has no office in India, though its Singapore operations, The Hindu has learnt, employs several Indian nationals. In just the last six months, internet searches show, three technology jobs with Amesys' Singapore office were advertised in the Indian media; e-mail addresses for two Indian-origin employees also surfaced.

But the story is important, mainly, for the insight it provides into just how far-reaching modern communi cations intelligence is — and raises disturbing ethical questions about its use.

From the Amesys documents obtained by a WikiLeaks-led international media consortium, which includes The Hindu, we have a good idea of just what the technology allowed Libya to do. Eagle, Amesys' core technology, consists of four elements: passive, undetectable probes which can be plugged in to capture internet and voice traffic; a data-system built around multi-core processors to analyse it;

A monitoring centre with an easy-to-use graphical user interface that allows operators to search through the data; and, finally, modules that allow for automatic identification of particular speakers, and even transcription or translation from multiple languages.

Eagle's portable version is designed for tactical use — for example, to target a particular neighbourhood or village, or search for individuals or groups of people. It can, the company says, handle up to 10 mbps of data traffic in real time. This is about five times that of a typical mid-size office.

The massive interception version, Amesys' corporate literature says candidly, “is designed to answer to the need of interception and surveillance on a scale of nation.” Its data centre can handle up to “tens of petabytes” aggregated from all sources of voice and data communication, and has the computing resources needed to “analyse nationwide data flow in real time.” “The central database,” it says, “is able to aggregate information coming from different type of sensors and also to be connected to external database to cross reference information.”

Amesys' electronic Panopticon has a large variety of plug-ins to cater to every need: information can be time-stamped and digitally signed, where it is intended for legal use; it can be subjected, automatically, to “semantic analysis, topic spotting [and the] geo-localisation” of intelligence targets.

Even though these technologies seem almost magical, it is important to remember that we encounter them all in our everyday lives: plain-vanilla Google, for example, has tools to translate and transcribe text. Airlines and banks routinely use voice-recognition software to deal with clients.

Amesys' brochure promotes the massive interception product, possibly because it is substantially more expensive: “completely and easily connectable to existing system, the massive products designed by Amesys are the best answers to your needs.”

In a statement issued earlier this year, after news of Amesys' involvement in Libya first broke, the company sought to play down claims that its equipment had allowed massive monitoring of internet traffic. “Amesys,” it said, “signed a contract with the Libyan authorities in 2007. The relevant hardware was delivered in 2008. The contract was related to the making available of analysis hardware concerning a small fraction of the internet lines installed at that time [a few thousand].”

The operator manuals revealed by Owni, though, are marked Eagle — which makes the claim that the surveillance technology sold to Libya was small-scale, irreconcilable with the Amesys brochure.

Leaving aside these details, though, there are two large questions: why did France sell the equipment to a dysfunctional dictatorship such as the one in Libya? And was it even minimally responsible in ethical terms, in doing so?

Hard questions

Libya's French-made Panopticon has been read, in the media and by privacy advocates, as a classic example of the perils of handing over technology to rogue Third World regimes: a trope much used in western human rights discourse. The argument has several variants — for example, that China (or Iran or Syria) ought be denied military high-technology because of the nature of its regime; that India's missile programme (or that of Pakistan or China) poses a regional threat; that Pakistan (or Iran, or India) cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons.

Noman Benotman was a target of Eagle surveillance in Libya. As a member of the respected think tank Quilliam, which focusses on fighting Islamism and promoting moderate threads of Islamic thought, he was once a member of a jihadist terror group. In one interview, Mr. Benotman said that he fought alongside Jalaluddin Haqqani —the Al-Qaeda-affiliated warlord now spearheading much of the terrorist violence in Afghanistan — from 1989. He said he had “been trained by Pakistani Special Forces, the CIA and the [British] SAS.”

Libya had good reason to be concerned about Mr. Benotman, even after he broke ranks with the Afghan jihadists. He had been a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) — one of several Islamist terror organisations, the scholar and researcher Mark Curtis has shown in his book Secret Affairs: Britain's Collusion With Radical Islam — which was backed by western intelligence services before 9/11. Britain's Home Office later said the LIFG's aim had been to “overthrow the Qaddhafi regime and replace it with an Islamic state”; it did not mention that MI6, the country's external espionage agency, had supported that objective.

Based on testimony, among others, from the former MI6 officer David Shayler, Mr. Curtis uncovered evidence that Britain paid, among other things, for a terrorist attack in which six people were killed. This was a bombing in February 1996 in Colonel Qadhafi's home town of Sirte.

From late in the decade, the Libyan regime — which, it bears noting, was the first to seek Osama bin Laden's arrest through Interpol, back in 1998 — began seeking a rapprochement with the jihadists. Libyan exiles living in London, where they had been granted asylum by a state which had paid for their war, played a key role in the effort. That effort was spearheaded by Qadhafi's U.K.-educated son, Saif-al-Islam.

Mr. Benotman, and other Libyan dissidents with a jihadist background, clearly constituted a matter of legitimate concern to Qadhafi's intelligence services — as did the human rights lawyers and activists who supported them. So did Ashur Shamis, a dissident who ran a Libyan human rights group. Mahmud Nacua, another target in London, is the new Libyan government's Ambassador to the United Kingdom. He had often called for the overthrow of the Qadhafi regime.

France, it seems probable, made surveillance equipment available to Libya with full knowledge of what it would be used for: unlike the U.K., it had reason to fear the LIFG. In the wake of the Afghan jihad, LIFG cadre had fought in alliance with Algerian jihadists, who also targeted France. Paris had little patience with the U.K.'s opportunistic love affair with Islamism which, French intelligence used to say, had turned one of the world's great cities into a hub for religious extremists they called “Londonistan.”

More likely than not, France also benefited from Amesys' equipment — almost certainly using it to penetrate Libya's own communications, through electronic back-doors, and harvesting intelligence of commercial use. In this sense, Amesys was an agent of the French state intimately enmeshed with its geostrategic objectives, not a rogue actor callously peddling dangerous technology to all comers.

In recent weeks, respected newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post have criticised the U.S. for allowing its corporations to sell communications-intelligence technologies around the world. In reality, the U.S. encourages them, for wholly hard-headed reasons.

The Libyan state tortured and killed opponents — but for decades it was evident that every other nation-state of consequence has done exactly the same things where its strategic interests and security were imperilled. Like every other nation in the world, Libya understood that power and information were intimately enmeshed — perhaps more so in this digital age than ever before.

More In: News | International