from the it's-fine-when-we-do-it dept
Telecom giants are no strangers to helping governments spy on journalists, activists, and their own citizens. AT&T, for example, is effectively so bone-grafted to the NSA here in the States, you literally cannot physically tell where the government ends and the telecom giant begins.
Chinese companies like Huawei have also jumped to the head of the line when asked by repressive governments in Africa to spy on government political opponents, critics, and journalists, or to help Chinese officials track and manage the genocide of the Uighur population.
Now the war in Ukraine and the subsequent economic sanctions on Russia has revealed that Nokia’s also perfectly willing to help violent and oppressive governments when there’s money to be made. When Nokia decided to join countless other companies in exiting Russia to punish it for its attack on Ukraine, the New York Times notes they left something very interesting behind:
“For more than five years, Nokia provided equipment and services to link SORM to Russia’s largest telecom service provider, MTS, according to company documents obtained by The New York Times. While Nokia does not make the tech that intercepts communications, the documents lay out how it worked with state-linked Russian companies to plan, streamline and troubleshoot the SORM system’s connection to the MTS network.”
While this sort of behavior usually sees some light hand-wringing, there’s a long history of both this sort of cooperation, and limited accountability for it. The United States, for example, provided significant IT and telecom support to vicious, tyrannical governments in South America during Operation Condor in the 70s, helping them better coordinate widespread acts of terrorism, murder, and torture.
In this case, Nokia’s planning and strategic aid helped the Russian NSB and Russian telecom giant MTS implement the System for Operative Investigative Activities (SORM), which, in turn, helped with the tracking, surveillance, and violence against and in some cases the murder of activists, journalists, and political opponents.
The documents obtained by the Times indicated that Nokia knew it was aiding the Russian government in this way, and made hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue as a result. Analysis of the documents suggest the system simply wouldn’t have been possible without Nokia’s help. Some of this had been reported previously, though Nokia had tried to downplayed its involvement.
This was the sort of thing that U.S. lawmakers spent years freaking out over when it came to allegations that Huawei used its hardware to spy, leading to a massive global embargo of Huawei products (though no public evidence was ever offered, and the U.S. was often caught doing similar things). In fact, Nokia’s now a big player in our 5G deployments thanks to the embargo on Huawei.
So the great irony here is that the U.S. (an increasingly authoritarian government and a big fan of unchecked surveillance), embargoed Huawei gear over unchecked surveillance in service to an authoritarian government, driving a significant chunk of U.S. 5G build out business to Nokia, which was just caught… helping authoritarian governments engage in unchecked surveillance.
Super consistent and savvy policy making.
What Congress gets upset about on the domestic surveillance front often ebbs and flows arbitrarily, based on things like the color of an executives’ skin, who is flinging around campaign contributions, and whether the U.S. is the one doing the spying. We’ve led by (poor) example on much of this stuff for more than a generation, and the sour outcome shouldn’t be particularly surprising.