OntarioTeachers’ Pension Plan invests in US Internet surveillance firm

It’s emarkable that OTPP invests these teachers’ assets in Blue Coat Systems, a U.S.-based company that derives revenue from provision of technology that can be used for Internet censorship and surveillance to countries with poor and at times condemnable records on freedom of expression, access to information, and other human rights say Ron Deibert and Sarah McKun  in a Toronto Star op-ed. These teachers’ retirement — as one member described it, “a reward for, you know, 30 dedicated years” — is supported in part by the continued demand for information control by authoritarian regimes in Bahrain, China and Saudi Arabia, to name just a few.

They go on »»»

The OTPP, as part of an investor group led by the private equity firm Thoma Bravo, agreed to acquire Blue Coat Systems in December 2011 for a total cost to the investor group of $1.3 billion (U.S.) At that time, the potential of Blue Coat products to undermine human rights was already clear: investigations by a number of groups, including Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs of the University of Toronto, confirmed in the fall of 2011 that Blue Coat devices were used in Syria, a country experiencing significant unrest and government crackdown, and subject to U.S. sanctions.

Citizen Lab wrote to OTPP then, urging it to engage in further analysis of Blue Coat’s corporate practices and policies concerning its Internet-filtering products and services, and direct dialogue with Blue Coat regarding uses of its products that may violate internationally recognized human rights. We received a response from OTPP in January 2012 noting that OTPP was aware of the issues Citizen Lab raised and was committed to principles for responsible investing. OTPP proceeded with its investment in Blue Coat Systems.
Now, a year later, Citizen Lab has released a new report, Planet Blue Coat: Mapping Global Censorship and Surveillance Tools. Using a combination of technical interrogation methods, our researchers scanned the Internet to look for signature evidence of Blue Coat products. While our investigation was not exhaustive and provided only a limited window of visibility into the deployment of such tools, what we were able to find raises serious concerns.
We uncovered 61 Blue Coat ProxySG and 316 Blue Coat PacketShaper devices, which are designed to filter online content and inspect and control network traffic. While legitimate for some purposes, these capabilities can also be used for mass censorship and surveillance of a country’s Internet users. It is noteworthy in this respect that 61 of these Blue Coat appliances are on public or government networks in countries with a history of concerns over human rights, surveillance and censorship (see the work of the OpenNet Initiative documenting such concerns).

Specifically, we found the ProxySG product, designed to filter access to information online, in Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. We found the PacketShaper appliance, capable of deep packet inspection and mass surveillance, in Afghanistan, Bahrain, China, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Nigeria, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey and Venezuela.
If companies like Blue Coat Systems are ever to acknowledge the human rights implications of their products and embrace corporate social responsibility measures, more pressure is necessary. What should OTPP do?

Blue Coat Systems pursues profit on behalf of its investors, including OTPP and its members, and it is these investors who are perhaps best placed to call for more transparency and accountability within the company. Indeed, a representative of the OTPP asset group Teachers’ Private Capital sits on the Blue Coat Systems board. OTPP and its members should task Blue Coat to develop and make public robust human rights policy commitments, practices and due diligence measures; investigate the purposes for which its products will be used, ensuring that products are not sold to users likely to direct them to illegitimate ends; and engage in transparent discussions within civil society, industry, and elsewhere about the deployment of its products and ways to control the harmful impact of surveillance and filtration technology.
Canada’s teachers have an important role to play in preventing the use of western-made technologies to compromise freedom of expression, privacy and the flourishing of free thought in societies around the world. Will OTPP put its mouth where its money is?

Ron Deibert is director of the Citizen Lab and Canada Centre for Global Security Studies and Sarah McKune is senior researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

Jon Newton — myblogdammit

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