CubaBrief: Will U.S. plans to work with other countries to limit exports of surveillance tools and other technologies impact Google’s arrangement with Havana?

Next week the Biden Administration will announce at the Summit for Democracy that the ” U.S. plans to work with other countries to limit exports of surveillance tools and other technologies that authoritarian governments can use to suppress human rights,” reported Yuka Hayashi at and Alex Leary in their December 3, 2021 article “U.S. to Lead Global Effort to Curb Authoritarians’ Access to Surveillance Tools” in The Wall Street Journal. According to a November 26, 2019 article in The Wall Street Journal by Liza Lin and Josh Chin “U.S. companies, including Seagate Technology PLC, Western Digital Corp., Intel Corp. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co., have nurtured, courted and profited from China’s surveillance industry. Several have been involved since the industry’s infancy.”

Google exec chair Eric Schmidt and Cuban national telecom president exec Mayra Arevich sign bilateral agreement in 2016

Back in July 2021 during the unprecedented nationwide protests the Castro regime shut down the internet, and some have suggested that is the only way for “authoritarians to control the internet,” but that is not true. They can use Cubans access to the internet and cell phones to track and surveil them. In addition to secret police actively monitoring dissidents with boots on the ground they can also monitor internet and cell phone usage to track them. This was seen in practice in the lead up to, and on November 15, 2021 when civic marches were called for in several provinces on the island.

Google exec chair Eric Schmidt poses with Castro photo

In December 2016 the Castro regime and Google signed a deal to store data, including user data, on servers in Cuba. These servers began to go live in April 2017. “Cuban intelligence can weaponize these very same cache servers and target those who oppose the communist regime.” In 2017, Amnesty International explored how Cuba was shifting to a Chinese style approach of censoring the internet to “create a Cuban version of reality laden with political ideology through controlled access to the internet.”

Miguel Díaz-Canel, right, in Havana with Sen. Jeff Flake, cntr, and Eric Schmidt, fmr Google executive chair in 2018. (Brett Perlmutter Twitter)

The past three decades have chastened many optimists that initially believed the internet was a tool of liberation, but today realize that it is a powerful tool that can be wielded for good or ill. This needs to be taken into consideration when formulating policy at the government, business, and NGO levels, and the consequences of remaining on the current course that has empowered tyrants in Beijing, Havana, and elsewhere. The first to suffer were dissidents under these regimes, but now they are negatively impacting established democracies. The key question is what policies empower autocrats and which ones empower democrats?

The Wall Street Journal, December 3, 2021

U.S. to Lead Global Effort to Curb Authoritarians’ Access to Surveillance Tools

Administration official cites China’s use of monitoring technologies, which Beijing has defended, in calling for tighter export rules

A surveillance camera overlooked a sidewalk in Beijing last month. U.S. companies have provided China with technology for monitoring its population.


By Yuka Hayashi at and Alex Leary

WASHINGTON—The U.S. plans to work with other countries to limit exports of surveillance tools and other technologies that authoritarian governments can use to suppress human rights, an alleged practice in China.

The Biden administration said Thursday that it would launch an initiative with friendly nations to establish a code of conduct for coordinating export-licensing policies. The effort would also see participating nations share information on sensitive technologies used against political dissidents, journalists, foreign government officials and human rights activists, administration officials said.

The initiative is set to be announced during the inaugural Summit for Democracy, a virtual gathering scheduled for Dec. 9-10, that will bring together more than 100 democratic governments seeking to form a bulwark against authoritarianism.

China and Russia, which weren’t invited, have jointly criticized the meeting, saying it would “stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world.”

In a briefing with reporters Thursday, a senior administration official said the world-wide growth of digital surveillance has spurred the U.S.-led effort.

“Technology is being misused by governments to surveil and, in some cases—as in the case of the PRC—to control their population,” the official said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

U.S. companies have provided China with technology to build a surveillance network for tracking political dissidents and ethnic minorities, including in the northwestern Xinjiang region, The Wall Street Journal and others have reported. The State Department deems Beijing’s forced assimilation campaign in Xinjiang, which is home Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities, “genocide and crimes against humanity.”

China has rejected the genocide designation and repeatedly denied allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, defending its actions there as necessary to prevent violence from religious extremism. The U.S. companies involved have said they don’t have control over how their technology is used.

Biden administration officials said Thursday that stopping the flow of technology that can be used to suppress human rights requires a multilateral approach.

“This is a group of like-minded governments who will commit to working together to determine how export controls could better monitor and, as appropriate, restrict the proliferation of such technologies given their increasing misuse by end users in human rights abuses,” another senior administration official said.

Administration officials didn’t say which countries would be participating in the new effort but indicated it could include members of the Wassenaar Arrangement, an existing export-control program for weapons and sensitive technologies. That 42-member group includes the U.S.’s close allies in Europe, North America and East Asia as well as Russia.

The technologies to be covered by the new initiative will be similar to those already targeted by domestic U.S. policies linked to sensitive technologies that are used for legitimate law-enforcement and intelligence operations but are also increasingly deployed by nondemocratic actors.

In November, the Biden administration placed four cybersecurity companies from Israel, Singapore and Russia on an “entity list” for export prohibition that will restrict them from obtaining certain technologies from the U.S. That followed the administration’s announcement of a new regulation that will require companies to obtain licenses to sell hackling tools in countries like China and Russia. Washington has also placed producers of solar panel materials on an export control list as it condemned the use of forced labor among Xinjiang’s Muslim minorities.

The U.S. has also started working with friendly nations to scrutinize the sale of sensitive technologies through the “Quad group” of Pacific nations—the U.S., India, Japan and Australia—and through bilateral agreements with other Asian allies. Export control is also a key issue being addressed by the U.S. and the European Union through their newly launched Trade and Technology Council.

Write to Yuka Hayashi at and Alex Leary at

Copyright ©2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Appeared in the December 3, 2021, print edition as ‘U.S. Seeks To Limit Exports of Spy Tools.’

From the Archives

Fox News, January 25, 2017

Google entering Cuba is ‘Trojan Horse’ that could reinforce regime, residents say

By Marta Dhanis | Fox News

HAVANA, Cuba – In signing a deal with the Cuban authorities last December, Google took on the challenge of improving internet access in what many consider to be one of the worst places in the world to go online.

But Havana residents are taking the development with a grain of salt. Recently Fox News spoke with some islanders who expressed doubts Google will make a success of it, at least anytime soon.

“We call the internet a ‘Trojan Horse.’ The success of this government has been possible thanks to the people’s lack of information,” said a 57-year-old retired professor who requested anonymity for fear of retribution by the communist regime.

“I would have a patrol car at my door tomorrow to monitor my life,” he said.

On the other hand, he and others contend, this Trojan Horse is also providing the communist regime with technology that will empower the secret police with detailed reports of the users’ searches and profiles, right down to their location.

“This means that Cubans generally, and Cuban dissidents in particular, will not only have their entire online lives to the last detail available, but also where they travel, who they meet with in the real world and many other details made available to Castro’s intelligence services,” said John Suarez, an activist.

Google would not provide any comment on this and suggested visiting its blog for further details. The blog broadly states that the deal allows the state-owned telecommunications company ETECSA to use Google’s technology “to reduce latency by caching … popular high-bandwidth content like YouTube videos at a local level.”

Google has additionally partnered with Havana’s Museo Orgánico Romerillo, a museum in Miramar, an upscale neighborhood dotted with embassies and mansions. The agreement is that the museum provides Google a space to showcase some of its products through the ETECSA network, but commits to grant internet access to all visitors.

“We know, from the experience of many countries around the world, that new technologies and improved internet access can help people in their daily lives, provide new information and experiences, and help harness a country’s creativity and ingenuity,” Google says in its blog.

However, connectivity in the communist nation continues to be extremely limited to the lucky few. In my visit to the island in early January I was mentally prepared to disconnect from the world — which actually felt quite nice for a couple days.

This is how it went down for me: My quest for internet started at the José Martí International Airport, where I started looking for the prepaid ETECSA card I had been told was the only way to get connection. The card costs around $5 and gives you approximately an hour of internet per dollar.

ETECSA is an acronym for Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba Sociedad Anonima, and is the sole provider of internet access in the island.

The day I landed, the airport had run out of the coveted cards so I had to manage to buy one the next day at one of the city’s hotels. They are not easy to find. There are just a bunch of “official stores” that sell them, and luxury hotels also offer them but for five times the price.

So, to my puzzlement, for the same $5 and the same exact card, I got access to only one hour online.

Around Havana, there are a few places where you can get Wi-Fi for your device. Your best bet are the “upscale” hotels, but even there be prepared for a signal too weak to make a call through WhatsApp, watch videos or even upload and download pictures.

You can tell you have found an oasis by the dozens of people – both locals and tourists – glued to their phones for hours in front of these hotels. The government also approved some hotspots in public parks where you’ll also find internet junkies, but with very weak connection.

“The access is very limited and we can’t enter opposition websites or read, for example, The New York Times,” said the retired college professor. “At home, all we can get to work is an email account. The government doesn’t want us to have internet.”

The government, however, blames the U.S. saying the embargo has prevented the country from developing its telecoms infrastructure.

In any event, so far Google’s deal doesn’t seem to have changed things much, as all the company has done is provide faster access to their services, like Gmail or YouTube — and that’s only available to the privileged few who belong to the government elite anyway.

To critics such as activist John Suarez, Google’s deal with the Cuban government is a “disturbing development” that will only modernize Castro’s totalitarian regime.

“Any technological improvements are illusions to us,” the retired professor added.

Marta Dhanis is a field producer for the Fox News Channel. She can be reached @MartaDhanis.