Internet users in Uzbekistan look set to suffer an indefinite continuation to the poor service they have been enduring for the past half year or so.
The lingering suspicion is that security services are trying, but struggling, to install cast-iron monitoring mechanisms to keep tabs on users of popular communication software like Skype, WhatsApp and Viber.
State-run Uzbektelecom’s Internet provider division said that the latest decline in the quality of connections would last through to early next month because of maintenance work on the network, Regnum news agency reported on January 6.
The agency said some areas of the capital, Tashkent, might cease to get the Internet altogether.
This has become a routine warning since July, however, and other online providers — Sarkor Telecom, Sharq Telecom, Turon Telecom, ComNet and others — have issued similar statements.
Telecommunications officials have tried to reassure customers that the ultimate aim to all the interruptions in service are to improve quality, but experts are skeptical.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, Ozodlik, has speculated that the ultimate cause may be the National Security Services’ desperate efforts to monitor online traffic.
"It looks like they [the security services] have jumbled up all the Internet traffic settings as they try to set up a monitoring system in the main server, where all international traffic goes through,” an Internet security specialist told Ozodlik on condition on anonymity.
Such claims have no longer been subject of speculation since hackers last year leaked reams of correspondence from an Italian company, Hacking Team, which provides Internet monitoring technology to numerous governments, including Uzbekistan’s.
A detailed report by Georgina Rannard on the website UN Dispatch lucidly explains how Hacking Team can help security services snoop on their citizens.
“Hacking Team sells Remote Control Software (RCS). If used in the manner advertised by Hacking Team, RCS enables the Uzbek security services to extend its surveillance of citizens beyond traditional wiretapping to the next level — secret capture of data that often has never been digitally communicated. The spyware is used to copy files from a hard-drive, record Skype calls, copy passwords, and can even turn on a device’s webcam and microphone to spy on the user,” Rannard wrote.
Encrypted messaging software is said by officials to be the preferred form of communication for militants, which is how companies like Hacking Team typically justify their willingness to sell to governments with dubious rights records. It is, however, widely accepted that intelligence agencies cast their surveillance nets wide and liberally extend them to anybody them deem suspect, including activists.
Perusing Uzbekistan-related emails stolen from Hacking Team at the WikiLeaks website indeed reveals that at least four people affiliated with the security services appear to have travelled to the company’s headquarters for training on how to use monitoring technology.
The most canny Internet users access services being interrupted because of bad service provision by installing what is known as a VPN, which makes the computer think it is outside the country. That accounts for a tiny minority of Internet users in Uzbekistan, however.
It is particularly unfortunate that software being affected are those used by families keeping in touch with relatives working abroad. Using Skype, Viber or WhatsApp vastly reduces expense compared to regular mobile telephone communication.
Attempting to sweeten the pill, Uzbektelecom has told customers it is reducing tariffs, but even that will come as slim consolation. Even with the new prices, the most affordable tariffs will provide relatively slow speeds and strict traffic limitations, placing large swathes of the Internet out of reach.
For all the official paranoia that surrounds the Internet, the penetration goals for the next few years are intensely ambitious.
According to government projections, the proportion of the population online should increase to 30 percent in 2016, to 50 percent in 2017 and then reach 65 percent by 2018.
Authorities appear to understand that Internet connectivity is imperative, but are less than willing to trust their citizens to use it.