The political crisis in Iran, which is gaining momentum these days, showed to the whole world not only the tough aggression of the repressive regime towards its “lieges”, but also how it is possible to control the network activity of the whole country with the help of modern technologies. I won’t go into political details – it’s neither the right place, nor the right time, and frankly speaking, I am not the right person to evaluate all the facts and arguments adequately and sort the wheat from the chaff. Even more in a situation when I am absolutely not familiar with the language of the country. We are speculating on a topic which is much closer to us – the censure, blocking people Worldwide who still do not use SmartHide Service from accessing their favorite web-resources.
On June 22nd the highly regarded “The Wall Street Journal” (further on WSJ) published a very interesting article where journalists report about an ultra-modern Internet traffic deep packet inspection system used in Iran. It was not hard for Iranians as well as for foreign observers to understand what “the government reads” – since the time when thousands of people went out on the streets to protest against the rigged elections, the Internet speed dropped significantly in the country. Bloggers as well as journalists who encounter difficulties with information transfer through the Net witness this. It is obvious that nobody would ever drop the transfer capacity without any reason. That was when the WSJ decided to dig deeper into the core of the story and found an interesting contract, signed in 2008 by the government of Iran, owning the monopoly on all kinds of the communication within the country (mobile connection, Internet, television, radio) and a joint venture of Finnish Nokia Corp. and German Siemens AG – Nokia Siemens Networks, for ultra-modern mobile phone networking equipment delivery, and as it became known later, for the complete national traffic analysis. We’ll start from where it should be started – from preceding events.
In the second half of 2008 Nokia Siemens Networks provided Iran with the special equipment according to the agreement “On Lawful Interception of Information and Internet content filtration”. One can’t say that there is something fantastic in that – the government of every country tries to protect its users from child pornography, web terrorism and other knowingly unlawful actions of criminals. As the official representative of the company Ben Roome reports:
“If you sell networks, you also, intrinsically, sell the capability to intercept any communication that runs over them”.
The “Monitoring Center”, installed by the joint venture of two communication giants, was a part of a big contract that included mobile phone and networking technologies. It should be noted that during the last 10 years the number of optical fiber miles in Iran grew by 50 times – the necessity of a “control” tool in such a situation is out of question. Nothing to be surprised with: a Muslim country, living according to its rules, it’s not anything like France or Sweden.
The Iranian government had experimented with the equipment for brief periods in recent months, but the filter or interception had not been used extensively. Nobody worried, life was going on. It continued until one fatal day: June 13, 2009 when all the network and mobile traffic practically stopped in the country.
Today Iranian network engineers say that
“nobody ever thought that the government is capable of such a level of control. We knew that there was some equipment, but now we know that it is a very powerful, modern and complex technical facility allowing almost complete tracking of the network”.
The method used in the Iranian data center is called deep packet inspection. All the flow of online data whether an online-data packet or a telephone call, SMS, a digital image – anything is deconstructed, examined for keywords, after that it’s reconstructed and reaches the recipient. It’s done within millseconds. But unlike China, where the same scheme is used by the provider and it is decentralized, in Iran the whole thing is done at a single location. The digital life of the whole country is filtered in a single room, to put it simple, and that’s why the Internet speed slowed down to less than a tenth of normal speed.
The reasons for such a behavior from the part of Iranian conservative government are again obvious. While they can still easily keep people misinformed/blocked from the information by means of national TV channels and radio stations, nobody will tell the “false truth” on the Internet. Today we are all familiar with the Twitter functionality in exposing any details – that’s what happened in the “Tibetan history”, with Moldova and now the same thing is taking place in Iran.
The government is trying to intrude deep into the network situation and it is doing that just perfectly. Bradley Anstis, the director of technical strategy with the American provider Orange says:
“This looks like a step beyond what any other country governed by the “regime” is doing, including China”.
China, however, has 300 million of Internet users, unlike Iran with “only” 23 millions, but actually, it doesn’t change the essence of the problem.
People are beginning to protest – consumers are writing angry letters to Siemens and Nokia saying that they destroyed their mobile phones and will recommend to do the same to people they know. It’ll last until the company “can make the right ethical choices”. However, Mr. Roome comments: ”Every company does have a choice whether to do business in a certain country.” Even if Nokia Siemens Networks could suggest that their equipment will be used for censure, being European democrats they could scarcely foreknow that mass espionage against country’s own citizens is possible. I believe that those people who made such a decision thought very deeply to find ways to justify themselves saying that communication interception and monitoring technology inevitably goes together with the equipment. It’s a normal situation in many quite civilized countries and in some of them it is even a standard requirement to the equipment, for example in Great Britain. During its existence (in March the company sold its communication business to a German investment company), Nokia Siemens Networks sold such data centers to the governments of 150 countries. However, official representatives say that neither China, nor Burma, nor any other country with such a tough censure policy are on the list.
However, one shouldn’t think that Iran and China are the only countries which feel easy to involve in such practices. In the already mentioned Great Britain, for example, there is a list of completely blocked sites, and the German government bought such equipment not long ago. In the USA, during the government of George Bush’s administration, such equipment appeared with the National Security Agency within the framework of the “Terrorist Surveillance Program”. However, we do not know if it’s still being used. The Australian government is still experimenting with Web content filtering systems. The Russian Federation… might also have modest desire to follow the example of its colleagues, especially now when the Internet is so widely spread.
Probably the safest way to protect yourself, your personal data and ensure your correspondence security is traffic encryption with services like Arovax SmartHide, that help you to encrypt all your internet traffic and protect your personal data and identity. Nobody will spend money, time and resources to analyze this kind of data. But it’s another story.
The following materials were used in the article: The Wall Street Journal, Wired (1, 2), Gizmodo, Mashable, Textually.
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