Canadian-American company Sandvine, owned by Silicon Valley investment firm Francisco Partners, has been providing deep packet inspection (DPI) systems to Russian telecom operators for years. According to critics, the network technology, also known as “naked Internet scanners”, severely infringes on the basic rights of users and can be used for censorship.
An investor in Sandvine also participates in the Israeli NSO Group
Sandvine was founded in 2001 in Waterloo, Canada. The network supplier initially tried in vain for years to sell its DPI systems to leading telecom service providers in Russia. Terms from the Canadian and Russian governments initially prevented a deal from being struck. In addition, potential customers wanted to use the technology to monitor the Telegram messaging service, which Sandvine was unable to do at the time.
In 2017, Francisco Partners bought the company. Among other things, the investor owns parts of the Israeli NSO group, which is programming the government Pegasus Trojan horse, which has been denounced as a “monster”. Francisco Partners has combined Sandvine with Procera Networks, another DPI marketer, into its portfolio. This already gained a foothold in Russia in 2012 and was able to install its devices in telecommunication networks across the country.
Block or slow down websites and their locations
At meetings and product demos in Moscow in 2018, Sandvine representatives once again touted the benefits of deep packet inspection, according to US financial service Bloomberg. They explained to interested parties that this could prevent or slow down access to certain websites, identify the whereabouts of certain people and support local prosecutors. The news agency relied on company documents that they were able to view.
Sandvine eventually struck deals to sell its Internet scanners to telecom operators, according to internal filings. This is Megafon, the second largest mobile operator in Russia, and Tele2 Russia, a company controlled by the Russian government.
Since the Russian military invasion of Ukraine, Sandvine has scaled back its operations in Russia and halted all sales to the giant empire, a company spokesperson told Bloomberg. The company’s on-site equipment was used only for billing and service quality control.
Access providers are increasingly using DPI to manage traffic, civil society organizations, scientists and companies complained from 15 countries in 2019. The technology can be used to inspect data packets, discriminate against services, and spy on user behavior. Because domain names, web addresses, and other Internet resources used in this way can be scanned, sensitive data about political and religious beliefs, sexual preferences, or personal health can be released.
The spokesperson stressed that Sandvin had never agreed to provide surveillance tools to Russia. If the service provider attempts to reconfigure the technology for this purpose, it will be considered abuse and the contract will be terminated. However, by the time the shows were launched in Russia, the technical director of the clothing factory, Alexander Havang, admitted to the internal ethics committee that he was unable to prevent customers from using web-blocking technology.
In the summer of 2020, Bloomberg reported that the Belarus government used Sandvine’s systems to restrict access to foreign news and social media sites during the disputed presidential election. Then the company cut ties with the state. A Bloomberg analysis later revealed that Sandvine’s equipment was used to block LGBTQ websites in Jordan, independent news sites in Egypt, and social media in Azerbaijan.
More stringent monitoring is required
Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia, explained that such deals made by the company made it clear that US technology exports needed to be monitored more closely. The US Department of Commerce recently issued a rule that controls the export of DPI systems that can enable “widespread government surveillance”. Last year, the European Union introduced stricter export regulations for these “dual use” goods, which in principle serve both civilian and military purposes.
Civil rights organization Access Now called on Sandvine on Friday to “immediately withdraw all technologies that can be used for censorship and surveillance from Russia.” She called on the US government to fully investigate the plant’s activities there and in other countries for human rights abuses and introduce stricter export regulations. The first companies to be held accountable are those that facilitated the suppression of critical voices.
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