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Meet Etelaat and its "Nokias"

30 Aug 2009 10:068 Comments
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Caption: On June 22, a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal reported that the Iranian regime has developed, with the assistance of European telecommunications companies Siemens AG, the German conglomerate, and Nokia Corp., the Finnish cellphone company, one of the world's most sophisticated mechanisms for controlling and censoring the Internet, allowing it to examine the content of individual online communications on a massive scale.

By SAYA OVAISY in Tehran | 30 August 2009

[TEHRAN BUREAU] Comment You've heard the names of the blackest repute: Sepah (IRGC), Basij (militia), Ansar Hezbollah (plainclothes), Mesbah Yazdi. None are the source of our national phobia.

Encounters with the above were rare before the June 12 coup. Ansar shot to infamy for its murderous role in the student uprisings of a decade ago but remained largely subdued on the sidelines. Militarily, the IRGC never meddled in internal affairs; it was an elite corps we heard of on news networks in connection with arming Hamas and conducting defense maneuvers in the Persian Gulf.

IRGC grew to be despised under Ahmadinejad due to the enormous wealth it amassed, but it wasn't feared because it was invisible to us. The Basij we did see, occasionally surfacing at checkpoints camouflage-clad, and Kalashnikov-toting. But until June, such forces were not out in a public show of brutal force.

The word Etelaat ("Intel"), however, resonates with Iranians as KGB did for the Soviets or Stasi did for East Germany. Well-funded and well-equipped, the Ministry employs a network of "informers" who infiltrate workplaces, spy on the internet, lurk in hotel lobbies and even chat up tourists in taxis. In keeping with its Big Brother status, the ministry was founded in 1984. Under ministers Ali Fallahian and Ayatollah Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi respectively, Etelaat agents reportedly carried out the "Mykonos assassinations" of Kurdish party leaders in Berlin in 1992 and the "serial murders" of Iranian writers and dissidents in 1999.

While shooting an underground documentary in Tehran before the June elections, a European filmmaker could not fathom why potential subjects were so reluctant to take part in his project. Many refused to be on camera in any form; some agreed to body shots only and others consented to audio recording of their voices.All of them had advice for him on how to circumvent tailing by Intelligence agents: don't mention names and addresses over the phone, change your SIM card every few days, use an anonymous email address, log on to the internet via VPN service to divert your server route, don't tell anyone about your film unless they are referred to you by a trusted source.

"Iranians are all paranoid!" he would complain to me. "Like schizophrenics who think the CIA is chasing them!"

That was before a Basij officer caught him filming on the street without a permit. He was set free with a well-placed phone call, and although the incident had nothing to do with the Ministry of Intelligence, after that he believed those he once thought to be paranoid schizophrenics. In fact, his anti-intelligence caution grew to exceed ours. He would shush sources on the phone, insist on separate car rides, and took to hopping from hotel to hotel. Before leaving the country, he actually contemplated swallowing the memory stick holding his highly sensitive footage to pass through airport security -- although decided otherwise.

This is a small example of the chronic paranoia inspired by Iran's Intelligence Ministry, Vezarat-e Etelaat.

Not too long ago, a recently-arrived Iranian-British journalist was the victim of an Etelaati cab driver. "He asked about where I came from, why I'm in Iran," she recalls. "I mistook it for friendliness and answered unguardedly." Half an hour after she was dropped off at her door, Intelligence agents raided her home.

"They took everything," she said. "My laptop, cameras, cell phone, passport -- even my brother's desktop."

Many Iranian expatriates avoid visiting their native country for fear of being on Etelaat's radar -- even for a slight as minor as drawing cartoons.

A New York-based cartoonist, who wishes to remain anonymous, had satirized Islamic hijab in his work. When he traveled to Tehran in 2006, he was promptly hauled into an interrogation room at Imam Khomeini airport and barred from leaving the country for the next two years.

"I came back to see my parents and was marooned here," he says. "I had a job I loved, mortgage payments -- an entire life in the US which was left up in the air."

After the June 2009 elections, it was reported that Nokia-Siemens sold Iran spyware that allows monitoring of all phone calls and internet communication. Paranoia surged. I met people who would go as far as removing their cell phone batteries, because they believed the surveillance system is able to listen in one-way on cellular lines even when the handset is turned off.

A great number of Iranians on Facebook -- even those living outside the country -- took down their profile photos and changed their user names in order to shield their identities, because it was rumored that Etelaat agents had infiltrated the social networking site and were gathering information on opposition supporters.

The real scope of Intelligence power is probably far less than speculated. But because its bounds of surveillance capacity and range of informers are unclear, many Iranians modify their behavior and act cautiously as if under Etelaat's omnipresent watch. This Pantopticon effect in turn leads to self-censorship and censoring others, which then re-fuels the paranoia cycle.

Such effects apparently take time to wear off. A friend who recently left Iran said that although he could now speak freely on the phone, he could not shake off the feeling that Etelaat was somehow privy to the conversation. "You grow a persecution complex that's hard to outgrow," he said.

Meanwhile, some find ways to satirize the situation. A new slang term among Tehranis for someone who's a snoop, mole, or gossipmonger: "Nokia."

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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8 Comments

I can believe to all this scaring reports of Etelaat, and it is not paranoia by the citizens of Iran. But there was obviously paranoia reportedly preliminary recent election and its aftermath by the hard-liners within government, administration, prosecuters, judges, police and stubbornes of some clerics.

They are feeling weak on providing security, facing no alternate way into solutions but having a need to be surrounded by rearmed brutal mercenaries. Their leaders are widely linked with positions controlled bei Kamenei and Ahmedinejad, even the influence into the cleric councels shows, the clerics are divided.

Besides the above I have to emphasize, your Tehran Bureu articles and some parts of widely shared Iranian believes - as well by expatriate Iranians - in the role of technology and its foreign inventors (Nokia) is playing a very badly disinformational role creating a new paranoia by mislevelling the sources of real danger. This creates for your comments obviously a new proxy enemy leading away from the real enemies placed in the center of Iran society. I do not press on any sophistic discussion for distinguish the morals of scientists apart the moral of not-humans who are using technology like nuclear weapons against human mankind. Instead: even the internet is accepted from all not a hiding place and not restricted for only use of citizens but as well by oppressors. Its impossible to rule any web provisioning in different fractions of secure islands than Iran political reality.

Its your Tehran Bureau fairytale that Basij, Hezbollah and Sepha(IRGC) are less dangerous than any internet, software or cellphone technology. Only the Iran security services position and its legal rights constructions in Iran legislative control are giving evidence for the options of accepted or misused powers of controlling technical systems, never any market nor any manufacturer plays any role in a relevant moral assessment. Besides that, your even Irans scientists and programmers could easily produce any control system without any external help. From a technical point of view Tehran Bureau's article is mis-explaining its care for mobile users in sensitive parts of cellular systems in a total wrong way. It is not a lie to tell the people, they would be secure from tracking, in changing frequntly SIM cards. Your for running people dangerous spread of these fatal errors shows, that nobody cares for understanding the real technology of a 20 years long international co-operative development of a sophisticated system of mobile communications (gsm, 3G). And this way your writers provide ignorance to the readers is a severe problem in all discussions even within reformers and open-minded people. If you want to have more details, you may use my e-mail address.

Frank / August 30, 2009 3:20 PM

Frank, please learn to write in English before you try commenting again. I have no idea what you are trying to say!

kham / August 31, 2009 12:32 AM

Kham, with your ignorant and arrogant attitude there is no chance and nead for you to understand. You'r obviously belonging to the quoted enemies.

Frank / August 31, 2009 9:20 AM

Nokia when is often use can cause brain disability. This is what happening now to Ahmadinejad. He is losing control of himself. His mental faculties are deteriorating fast.

shetty / August 31, 2009 10:18 AM

I can understand the authorities vigilance and sometimes heavy handedness, though inexcusable, considering that the US has committed funds of $400m to destabilise Iran and the best way of doing that is to fund Iranian groups based abroad and inside to spread dissension,rumours and exaggeration of actual reality. They are not behaving very differently to British or US or Israeli intelligence. Not very long ago some 200 odd British police raided a Muslim family's house under the pretext of the Anti-terrorism act and many months later the individuals concerned were discharged and charged with trivial matters. This kind of harassment is not unique to Iran, although Iran is uniquely facing unprecedented pressure and interference by a coalition of great and small powers. God save the Islamic Republic and the Iranian people from devastation.

rezvan / September 1, 2009 4:57 PM

May the Iranian people save themselves from the islamic dictatorship.

Maziar / September 2, 2009 1:34 AM

Frank, I think you misread the article - it is about the surveillance. Naturally technology plays a large role in surveillance and it is easier to buy an equipment for surveillance from the guys who already have one working then to do it from the scratch. So the primary culprit is the government of IRI and the secondary one is a string the western businesses who sell such equipment to Iranian government. Which the article pointed out. There was not proxy enemy in the article and there was no dismissing "the real enemy"

I think that reading the article using the translation software gave you wrong impression of the article and made your post very difficult to understand. It was a translation software, wasn't it?

ella / September 2, 2009 9:47 PM

Thank you Ella for providing a better approach in discussion. Please accept, that handling your comments entry box on editing online creates terrible disruptions, so I don't care much on wrong spelling and grammar mistakes, as longer writings are deleted on regular software checks - from java I believe) so I have to write in a hurry.

I have no need and never used translator software for englis/and my mother tongue. I have about 10 years knowledge in Middle Easts Telecom advisory, planning, tendering, evaluating, operating, maintenance services teaching.

1. I agree on your evaluations of different sources and types of evils.

2. I disagree your writers (this includes all statements since one year observations on Tehran Telecom business) from yours and all related newspapers sources. Believe me, I have been working long time exactly on these issues I want to express but had to shorten it, as your friends patience in listening is a badly missing attitde of most Green Movements "fighters" and supporters.

So in giving a fitting expression to what I see at Iran an Expatriates moves I used the comparison of Iran peoples anticipating the neccessary attention to their real enemies by fomenting and shouting on manufacturers "guilty" and so creating increasing troubles in wrong interpretations of artificial proxy enemies (Nokia/Siemens) located in "the bad West".

As loud and more extremely run to the courts increase, you ar disregarding your own aims slashing on the wrong proxy. I could - and did it to a Philadelphia based Twitterer - explain it to very exactly, even in technical issues most of your advisers give wrong explanations, with the effect that young Iran students an best equipped youngster are running directly into jail - on fault of your terrible wrong Us advisors. I am stoned in facing even the arrogance of Shirin Ebady proclaiming issues, she never understood as they are not related to Human Rights Watch, stoned of a fomenting certain main advisor on technology creating a mob of greedy lawyers located in US, and obviously scientology people misleading you in creting troubles to Europeans. You should learn to say: "Sorry - in this way we are wrong."

I don't believe this could happen.

Frank / September 3, 2009 7:39 PM