Area SpA, the Italian company that had been building an Internet surveillance system in Syria, is exiting the project, according to the newspaper la Repubblica, which cited a lawyer for the firm.
If completed, the system would have given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime the power to intercept, scan and catalog virtually every e-mail that flows through the country, Bloomberg News reported Nov. 4, citing a person familiar with the project and blueprints for the system.
“The project, suspended for three months, given the lack of improvement in the conditions of the country, will not be completed,” Area’s lawyer, Fabio Ambrosetti, told la Repubblica. The company, based outside Milan, made the decision two days ago, the newspaper said.
Area Chief Executive Officer Andrea Formenti didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Ambrosetti was in court and couldn’t immediately comment, a person who answered the phone at his office said.
The Italian company had come under pressure following the Bloomberg report, with non-profit groups such as Human Rights Watch calling for the project to be shut down.
The cancellation will deprive Assad’s regime of a tool for hunting dissidents, who could have been abused or killed, said Nadim Houry, senior Human Rights Watch researcher for the Middle East and North Africa.
“This would have been used for assisting people being tortured,” he said. More than 100 Syrians have died in detention during the crackdown, he said, “many of whom died during interrogation.”
All work on the surveillance system had already been suspended, Formenti said Nov. 8. He declined to explain why, saying technical problems “could be one of the reasons.”
The Arab League imposed sanctions on Syria yesterday, including a freeze on financial assets in Arab countries.
As Syria’s crackdown on protests claimed more than 3,500 lives since March, Area employees had been installing the system under the direction of Syrian intelligence agents, according to a person familiar with the project, who had worked on it for Area and requested anonymity because Area employees sign non-disclosure agreements with the company.
Privately held Area, which got its start in 1996 furnishing phone taps to Italian law enforcement, issued a statement Nov. 8 saying the company does not have, and has never had, any relations with Syrian intelligence agencies or military authorities.
The statement said the system hadn’t been completed, has never been operational and, as a result, can’t have contributed to any repressive actions. Area won the deal in 2009, long before the current violence, the statement said.
The contract complied with export norms and was filed with the appropriate Italian authorities, the company said.
Vernon Silver in Rome at +39-06-4520-6328 or firstname.lastname@example.org;