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Canadian software tied to Yemen civil war, report alleges

A Yemeni soldier rides a pick-up truck on which a machine gun is mounted, in Marib, Yemen October 15, 2015.

STAFF/REUTERS

A new report alleges that made-in-Canada software is being used to cut Yemen's citizens off from learning about the civil war surrounding them.

Netsweeper Inc., a Waterloo, Ont.-based company, is said to have provided Yemen with Web-filtering technology that changed hands after rebel forces seized more territory. Now, the technology is said to be increasingly used to block access to Internet sites during an armed conflict that has killed 5,000 people and left millions in need of humanitarian aid.

Computer scientists at Toronto-based Citizen Lab research group argue in a report released Wednesday that information technology can be wielded as a weapon, and that lives are at stake. They contend that the same sorts of ethical questions now being applied to Canada's armoured-vehicle exports ought to be applied to Web-filtering technology.

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"Information has always been a weapon of war," Citizen Lab founder Ron Deibert said in an interview. He added: "Broadcasts that were being made for people to protect themselves against air strikes were not accessible, because a lot of that media has been blocked."

Citizen Lab, based at University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, is a home for computer scientists concerned about the implications of technology on civil society. The group has previously released reports about the use of Netsweeper software in Pakistan and Somalia.

Netsweeper did not reply to questions about the alleged use of its software in Yemen. On its website, the company bills its product as a "hardware agnostic" technology that relies on artificial intelligence and cloud technology.

Clients around the world who control large networks can use the software to scrub out content they don't want users to see. Such use on a corporate network would not be controversial, but it does raise several issues in the context of a country such as Yemen.

A long-standing doctrinal schism in the Islamic world has led to intensifying proxy and propaganda wars throughout the Middle East. Iran- and Saudi Arabia-backed rival factions are vying for land, influence and clout.

Yemen could be considered ground zero in this conflict. Earlier this year, rebels known as Houthis, allegedly backed by Iran, captured large swaths of territory, prompting a Saudi Arabian-led coalition of warplanes to retaliate.

The country's main Web link is a state-run Internet service provider (ISP) known as YemenNet. It is part of the infrastructure that has changed hands in the conflict, and is currently controlled by Houthis.

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In the study, Citizen Lab researchers – including one who spent time on the ground in Yemen – set out to discover which websites Netsweeper was blocking. Previous studies by the lab had found that Netsweeper technology was being used within Yemen, and researchers now allege that monitoring has been drastically stepped up since the ISP changed hands. For example, Citizen Lab researchers say Yemenis no longer have access to popular regional news sites, such as Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya, and that access to websites from Israel has also been blocked, a practice that had not existed before.

Yemen is a poor country, but more than 20 per cent of its citizens are said to use the Internet. Lack of access to the Web can add to the fog of war in a land already affected by electricity shutdowns and high rates of illiteracy. Several news reports suggest that Houthi rebels have been busy taking over broadcast stations and also using threats to control local journalists.

Citizen Lab researchers allege that, because Netsweeper is a "dynamic" product, its technicians in the Western world can and should patrol how the software is being used in Yemen.

"It's not just a handover of Microsoft Word," Mr. Deibert says. "This is a service, a technology that works by being constantly updated in terms of Web content. The value-add that they offer is that they categorize all of the Internet. They need to be able to know what people from Yemen are searching for."

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