Networking firm Sandvine cancels Belarus contract, citing ‘custom code’ that aided censorship

The episode highlights the role that software and cybersecurity firms can quietly play in the violation of human rights.
belarus internet outage
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko addresses the 26th Annual OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Session in Minsk on July 5, 2017. Internet groups said websites in Belarus were being block and throttled amid ongoing protests disputing the results of the presidential election, which Lukashenko is reported to have won. (Flickr / <a href="">OSCEPA</a>)

Sandvine, an internet routing and networking company, said Tuesday it would stop doing business with Belarus after realizing that government was using its products to suppress information during a bloody crackdown on protesters.

“Sadly, preliminary results of our investigation indicate that custom code was developed and inserted into Sandvine’s products to thwart the free flow of information during the Belarus election,” the company said in a statement, which was first reported by Bloomberg News. “This is a human rights violation and it has triggered the automatic termination of our end user license agreement.”

Belarus has been in a state of turmoil following an August election marred by allegations of fraud in which President Alexander Lukashenko, who has held power for a quarter-century, claimed victory. State security forces have arrested thousands of people and subjected hundreds to torture, according to Human Rights Watch.

Sandvine was founded in Canada and is backed by a San Francisco-based equity firm Francisco Partners. The firm, which says it sells data-collection and other telecom products in more than 100 countries, reportedly played a key part in Lukashenko’s attempt to stifle information. The government used equipment to block Belarusians’ access to Twitter and Facebook, along with international news sites, Bloomberg reported.


Twitter and virtual private network providers also reported service disruptions during the demonstrations. The episode highlights the role that software and cybersecurity firms can quietly play in the violation of human rights.  Surveillance software marketed by other firms have been used to spy on dissidents and journalists from Turkey to Morocco.

The revelations prompted Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to call for a U.S. Treasury investigation to determine if Sandvine had violated U.S. sanctions, according to Bloomberg. In its statement Tuesday, the company denied that was the case. “We abhor the use of technology to suppress the free flow of information resulting in human rights violations,” Sandvine said.

This isn’t the first time Sandvine has been accused of abetting censorship or the manipulation of web traffic. A 2018 investigation by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found that technology that matched Sandvine devices’ digital fingerprint was being used to inject malicious code into web connections for people in Egypt, Turkey and Syria. At the time, Sandvine dismissed some of the allegations as “technically inaccurate and intentionally misleading” but did not provide further details.

Sean Lyngaas

Written by Sean Lyngaas

Sean Lyngaas is CyberScoop’s Senior Reporter covering the Department of Homeland Security and Congress. He was previously a freelance journalist in West Africa, where he covered everything from a presidential election in Ghana to military mutinies in Ivory Coast for The New York Times. Lyngaas’ reporting also has appeared in The Washington Post, The Economist and the BBC, among other outlets. His investigation of cybersecurity issues in the nuclear sector, backed by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, won plaudits from industrial security experts. He was previously a reporter with Federal Computer Week and, before that, with Smart Grid Today. Sean earned a B.A. in public policy from Duke University and an M.A. in International Relations from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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