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News | Iran Acquires New Phone/Web Surveillance System from Chinese Firm

by DAN GEIST

23 Mar 2012 03:05Comments

Press Roundup provides a selected summary of news from the Farsi and Arabic press and excerpts where the source is in English. Tehran Bureau has not verified these stories and does not vouch for their accuracy. Any views expressed are the authors' own. Please refer to the Media Guide to help put the stories in perspective. You can follow breaking news stories on our Twitter feed.

Iran Daylight Time (IRDT), GMT+4:30

PhoneTrackingA.jpg3:05 a.m., 4 Farvardin/March 23 The Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI), co-owned by the Iranian government and a private consortium linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has purchased a comprehensive surveillance system "capable of monitoring landline, mobile and internet communications" from a Chinese firm, Reuters reports. According to interviews conducted by the news service and documents to which it gained access, the system is part of a networking equipment contract, valued at more than $130 million, signed in December 2010 with China's ZTE Corp. As Reuters observes,
Government-controlled TCI has a near monopoly on Iran's landline telephone services and much of Iran's internet traffic is required to flow through its network. [...]

Mahmoud Tadjallimehr, a former telecommunications project manager in Iran who has worked for major European and Chinese equipment makers, said the ZTE system supplied to TCI was "country-wide" and was "far more capable of monitoring citizens than I have ever seen in other equipment" sold by other companies to Iran. He said its capabilities included being able "to locate users, intercept their voice, text messaging...emails, chat conversations or web access."

The ZTE-TCI documents also disclose a backdoor way Iran apparently obtains U.S. technology despite a longtime American ban on non-humanitarian sales to Iran[....] ZTE's 907-page "Packing List," dated July 24, 2011, includes hardware and software products from some of America's best-known tech companies, including Microsoft Corp, Hewlett-Packard Co, Oracle Corp, Cisco Systems Inc, Dell Inc, Juniper Networks Inc and Symantec Corp.

According to Reuters, all of the U.S. companies denied knowledge of the ZTE-ICI deal and at least four declared that they would conduct internal investigations into the matter.

The report is a reminder of the lawsuit filed in August 2010 by Mehdi Saharkhiz on behalf of his father, the incarcerated Iranian journalist Isa Saharkhiz, against the giant telecommunications firm Nokia Siemens. The suit, filed in U.S. federal court under the Alien Tort Statute, alleged that the Finnish-German company knowingly provided the Islamic Republic with surveillance technology that it employed against Saharkhiz and a host of other dissidents. The Alien Tort Statute, part of U.S. law since 1789 but virtually ignored before the past three decades, states that "the district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States." The month after the Saharkhiz lawsuit was filed, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in a different case that the Alien Tort Statute "does not apply to corporate defendants," and the Saharkhiz suit was subsequently withdrawn.

In related news, the Wall Street Journal describes a recent official accounting of the Islamic Republic's "cybersoldier" contingent that indicates it is much more expansive than previously revealed. This development follows the announcement earlier this month that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ordered the establishment of a new Supreme Council of Cyberspace, charged with, among other things, "gaining complete knowledge about the activities in cyberspace on a domestic and international scale." The Journal reports on a statement from the Revolutionary Guards that they have

recruited and trained 120,000 cultural soldiers in the past three years to combat "a soft cyberwar" against Iran. Iranian officials had previously discussed the presence of these forces, but placed their number closer to 20,000.

These "cybersoldiers" monitor online activity of opposition sites and dissidents, bombarding websites with comments and producing blog content in support of the regime and hacking emails and computers, according to a computer programmer in Iran employed by the telecommunication ministry. They report to various state bodies, including intelligence, judiciary and the [Revolutionary Guards], which in turn have top officials sitting on the new council.

U.S. companies, meanwhile, are barred from giving ordinary Iranian citizens access to a broad range of technology that could help increase the security and confidentiality of their electronic communications, despite the Treasury Department's release Tuesday of an "Interpretive Guidance and Statement of Licensing Policy on Internet Freedom in Iran" intended, it said, "to further support the free flow of information to citizens of Iran." The new guidance clarifies that, under the current array of economic sanctions the United States has imposed on the Islamic Republic, U.S. businesses are still permitted to make available

to persons in Iran [...] services incident to the exchange of personal communications over the Internet, such as instant messaging, chat and email, social networking, sharing of photos and movies, web browsing, and blogging, provided that such services are publicly available at no cost to the user.

The technologies covered range from personal communications services such as Yahoo Messenger, Google Talk, and (non-fee-based) Skype to browser plug-ins like Shockwave and Java to personal data storage services including Dropbox.

However, as CNET News reports, the new guidance does not cover vital personal communications security technologies. According to CNET, Collin Anderson, an independent analyst of Middle East Internet filtering and censorship, observes that the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) still does not authorize the dissemination to Iran of such products and services as "antivirus applications, privacy-protective VPNs, the ability to buy domain names and SSL certificates, satellite connectivity, and phone or other mobile hardware." CNET observes that VPNs, or virtual private networks, "would be especially useful in a country like Iran, which has demonstrated an extraordinary willingness to conduct surveillance of its citizens."

***
KhazaliMedicalTreatment.jpgKaleme, the website affiliated with Green Movement leader and former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi -- now in his 14th month of house arrest following pro-democracy demonstrations across Iran last February -- reports that government critic Mehdi Khazali has been released from Tehran's Evin Prison. Khazali, a son of the hardline Ayatollah Abolghasem Khazali, who publicly disowned him for his commentary concerning the regime, reportedly lost about 65 pounds while on a 70-day hunger strike. An ophthalmologist and owner of a small publishing house, the younger Khazali became well known for his blog, DrKhazali.com, in which he regularly criticized President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the regime's ultra-conservative clerics, often in a humorous fashion.

Khazali, who was serving a 14-year sentence on charges such as "propaganda against the system," "publishing lies," and "disturbing public opinion," had been arrested on four separate occasions in the past three years. He was first incarcerated on June 27, 2009, in the aftermath of the disputed presidential election in which Ahmadinejad held onto his office in a vote widely thought to have been rigged. Released a month later after he posted $20,000 bail, Khazali was arrested again in October 2010. Again he was held for a month until he posted bail, this time in the amount of $180,000. He was arrested for the third time last July 18 and incarcerated in Evin for 27 days. He was arrested a fourth time on January 9 and almost immediately began his hunger strike. Despite suffering severe cardiac pain and a possible heart attack on February 18, he maintained the hunger strike until his release.

In 2010, after he was publicly rebuked by his father, the ayatollah, Khazali replied, "Can jihad be abandoned by a father's orders? The issue is eliminating oppression and tyranny, which is incumbent upon all of us, and a father's permission does not figure as a condition in this matter." This February, just hours before his heart problems began, Khazali composed a letter to his wife. He wrote, in part,

MehdiKhazaliPortrait.jpg
It's difficult, so difficult, to see your wife and children cry and mourn for your self-chosen slow death, and you witness them mourning you.

It's difficult to control yourself. You cannot see their sorrow and agony and not cry and cry yourself. But you have to be careful for this love and tears not to become a hindrance and shackles. [...]

My dears, my tears and your tears must be like the weeping for Hossein, son of Ali, peace be upon him, and should cause more striving, movement and effort toward our goal. They must become the two wings with which we can fly to reach the true beloved.

We must become like a roaring flood that uproots tyranny and oppression. So come and let us cry and cry together; these tears will uproot tyranny.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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