Exploring Cuban Internet surveillance and censorship

This research is ongoing.

After December 17, Cubans don’t have more food, more money, or more liberty. But we have more hope.

— Cuban journalist Yoani Sanchez said in May 2015

Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University, Dominguez Hills, recently asked some important questions on his blog:

  • Is the Cuban government surveilling the users?
  • Which IP addresses are blocked?
  • Are the Chinese supplying equipment, software or expertise for surveillance and content filtering?

Cuban infrastructure

Cuba’s Ministry of Communications (MIC) is responsible for approving Cuban communications infrastructure. Historically, according to TeleGeography, “Internet access in Cuba is largely restricted to legally recognized individuals and institutions considered most significant to the island’s culture and development, such as state officials and academics.”

According to Wikikeaks, “Cuba worked around the US embargo in order to deploy an undersea cable to Venezuela.” For more history, Wikileaks has available a document titled: “Radio and Television Broadcasting to Cuba: Background and Issues Through 1994.”

According to the United States Congressional Research Service in 2006, “On December 12, 2006, independent Cuban journalist Guillermo Fariñas Hernández received the 2006 Cyber Dissident award from the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. Fariñas went on a seven-month hunger strike in 2006, demanding broader Internet access for Cubans.” Reporters Without Borders “voices its support to the members of various dissident groups who have themselves been on a rotating hunger strike since 4 June [2006] in a show of solidarity with Fariñas and to draw international attention to his condition.”

In 2007, state-owned “Telecom Venezuela” and Cuban telco “Transbit” formed a new company called “Telecomunicaciones Gran Caribe”. The company eventually completed ALBA-1 in 2011, the only submarine cable that connects Cuba to the Internet and allows for the transmission of data, video and voice (VoIP). The cable has termination points in La Guaira, Venezuela, Ocho Rios, Jamaica, Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, and Siboney, Cuba. Until 2012, most Internet users in Cuba had limited access via satellite.

According to the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor on Internet Freedom in 2007:

“The [Cuban] government controlled nearly all Internet access. Authorities reviewed and censored e‑mail and forbade any attachments. Authorities also blocked access to Web sites they considered objectionable. Citizens could access the Internet only through government‑approved institutions, except at Internet facilities provided by a few diplomatic offices. In August authorities shut down Internet access in four government-run Internet cafes, including one located in the Ministry of Communications. The only citizens granted direct Internet access were some government officials and certain government‑approved doctors, professors, and journalists. The government also further restricted Internet use in government offices, confining most officials to Web pages related to their work. Foreigners, but not citizens, were allowed to buy Internet access cards from the national telecommunications provider and to use hotel business centers where Internet access cost $10 (240 pesos) an hour. The government stated that 8 percent of the population had Internet access, but independent studies concluded that only 2 percent of the population had access to the Internet.

A 2004 law stipulates that all public Internet centers must register with the government, and that all such centers may be the object of control and supervision, without prior warning, by the Agency of Ministry for Information Technology and Communications. While the law does not provide for any specific punishments for Internet use, it is illegal to own a satellite dish that would provide uncensored Internet access.”

According to the United States Congressional Research Service in 2009, “On May 21, 2008, the Senate passed S.Res. 573 (Martinez) by unanimous consent, which recognized Cuba Solidarity Day and the struggle of the Cuban people. On the same day, President Bush called for the Cuban government to take steps to improve life for the Cuban people, including opening up access to the Internet. He also announced that the United States would change U.S. regulations to allow Americans to send mobile phones to family members in Cuba.”

Prior to June 2013, Internet was only available at select state institutions and 200 hotels. The Cuban government then began offering access to the Internet at 118 outlets including a small number of cybercafés. According to Agencia EFE, “On June 14, 118 new Internet establishments were opened in the country where, through the national portal Nauta, permanent or temporary accounts were made available for e-mail access, online navigating and other services.”

As of April 2015, three million Cubans use mobile phones, a figure expected to grow by 800,000 a year. The state-owned monopoly Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba (ETECSA) has over 600 base stations across the island, up from 350 in 2010.

ETECSA will host the Internet Addresses Registry for Latin America and the Caribbean (LACNIC) meeting from May 2 to 6, 2016. ETECSA, and thus the Cuban government, clearly has ultimate authority of this region.

Desoft is the largest software developer in Cuba and based in La Habana, Cuba. Desoft’s CEO, since November 2014, is Luis Guillermo Fernandez Perez. Desoft’s website describes a product called “RCTel” that is a “Solution for recording and monitoring of telephone calls and their associated costs.” ETECSA is listed as one of their primary customers.

Prior to Desoft, Perez was the CEO of Cuba’s Softel from January 2004 through October 2014. Softel, according to LinkedIn, “Provides software solutions, analytics and consultancy for the telecommunication business.” Softel is “currently developing Softel Monitoring and Management Framework,” and their best selling product is “CMTS Monitoring System,” “capable of large scale (up to few millions easy scalable) docsis 2&3 cable modem customers monitoring. Some analytics and prediction algorythms in the area.”

According to Dyn Research, “Almost all of Cuba’s international Internet traffichas been passing through the United States for as long the Internet has existed in Cuba. For example, the satellite ground stations for the satellite service they currently use are on the East Coast of the United States.” “The Telefonica and Tata service across the ALBA-1 cable eventually makes its way to Miami to reach the global Internet. For technical reasons and not necessarily political, it is very hard to avoid the gravitational pull of the United States when routing international Internet traffic in the western hemisphere.”

United States infrastructure

IDT Corporation, based out of New Jersey, U.S. and in cooperation with ETECSA, is the “only U.S. carrier to have a direct interconnection into Cuba.

SMS Cuba, a telecom startup in Florida, U.S., is a two-way provider of SMS to those wishing to send mobile texts to and from Cubans. The service is not in direct communication with Cuba and must pass through multiple other nation states meaning there are even more connection points subject to carrier surveillance. SMS Cuba advertises directly to Cubans about how cost effective it is. Further, SMS Cuba’s registration web site does not employ transport security (HTTPS), meaning the US government (at minimum) gets to record the personal information of who signs up for the service.

While writing this article, I sent an email to the founder of SMS Cuba with some questions about their infrastructure. They declined to answer any of my questions, which were mostly technical in nature.

Sprint provides voice and SMS service to Cuba, a known NSA partner, even though it is the only major carrier to push back in court.

Products

According to Gigaom, “U.S. companies banned from selling or exporting everything from smartphones, servers and networking gear will be free to bring their hardware and software into the country.” Similairy, from the White House, “The commercial export of certain items that will contribute to the ability of the Cuban people to communicate with people in the United States and the rest of the world will be authorized. This will include the commercial sale of certain consumer communications devices, related software, applications, hardware, and services, and items for the establishment and update of communications-related systems.” “Telecommunications providers will be allowed to establish the necessary mechanisms, including infrastructure, in Cuba to provide commercial telecommunications and internet services, which will improve telecommunications between the United States and Cuba.”