tehranbureau An independent source of news on Iran and the Iranian diaspora

Tech | Iran's New 3G Mobile Network: Another Step to Curb Freedoms?

08 Nov 2011 03:35Comments
_23995_Iran_phone.jpgPopularization of smartphones enhances ability of regime to "track and control." But is that the motivation behind the new mobile network?


[ point ] As promised by Iran's Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology on October 19, the country's recently authorized third mobile operator, Tamin Telecom, has begun distributing SIM cards for a new national 3G mobile network to the public. In a country where the regime has gone to great lengths to restrict the free flow of information and citizens' access to the World Wide Web and the outside world in general, this move has come as a surprise to media watchers. Some skeptics believe that aside from providing good service to customers, there might be an ulterior motive behind this project -- undermining the security and privacy of Iranian citizens.

Tamin Telecom's infrastructure utilizes the third generation (3G) of standards for mobile phones. This generation of mobile phone network differs from previous ones in that it makes possible application services such as mobile Internet, mobile TV, and video calls over the network. It does not take much of an imagination to fathom the many applications of this technology. An underlying effect of all the advancements is great improvement in the ease and speed of access to alternative sources of information and news -- something the Iranian regime has been trying to curb for many years.

At first glance it might seem that there has been a sudden change of heart by the regime. After all, the two cellular networks already in place provide the necessary simple wireless telephony services, which would mean the only purpose behind the new 3G network is to provide the additional "application services." A deeper look, however, indicates that quite to the contrary, the network is intended only to further serve the interests of the Iranian regime in its drive to keep tab on the dissidents.

The most important fact about this project is that while the provider is independent of the state, it is still bound by Iranian regulation to cater to the regime's demands in times of crisis. The privately owned MTN-Irancell, which was operating a 2G network during the 2009 postelection protests, had to cut off service much like the state-owned Hamrahe-Aval. By the same token, all the Internet traffic over the network has to be routed through the same gateways used for other forms of Internet connectivity and hence can be blocked and filtered on the new operator. The new network thus provides easier and quicker access only to content approved by the regime and nothing more, and is therefore no threat to the "electronic curtain."

What the new network does provide is the necessary means for enhanced "track and control" operations. The problem with previous generations of mobile communications was that neither the network nor the handsets were designed for tracking purposes; such use was later developed by the security forces. On the new network, however, it is only natural to use a smartphone that allows the utilization of all the services the network has to offer. These new phones are all designed from the get-go to be tracked, remotely switched on, and even remotely updated. Shifting users from the traditional handsets to the new smartphones will make the "tracking" job of the country's security apparatus much easier. Watch almost any action movie or television show these days, and you'll hear how the police remotely switched on the suspect's phone and "pulled the GPS data" to locate the individual -- that capability is not fiction.

Also shifting the phone-use habit of subscribers from voice-only to text/data would take away a layer of complexity from the eavesdropping and "control" tasks of the intelligence apparatus. Iran does not yet have access to technology suitably efficient in the comprehension of Persian audio recordings, so sifting through voice calls is still a cumbersome, time-consuming, and labor-intensive task. This means that while the regime is capable of eavesdropping on the phone conversations of subscribers on the current 2G networks, this is feasible only when the targets are already known. The current system cannot work to identify new targets. Text and data are a different story as they are very easily searchable. There are numerous reports that the telecommunications company has been filtering content sent via SMS on the current 2G networks. Unfortunately, with the authoritarian regime becoming ever more tech-savvy, any new service that is offered must be treated with suspicion and great caution.

* * *


[ counterpoint ] Is Iran rolling out a 3G network just to monitor its citizens? The author provides no evidence to support this speculation. Meanwhile, the author assumes the government has no incentive to facilitate online services such as banking within the country.

While tracking smartphones can be done more accurately using GPS, it requires having software on the handset. Most smartphones in Iran are smuggled in. They run operating systems that are designed and maintained by Western countries, e.g., Symbian, Android, iOS, and Windows Mobile. In Iran, users do not purchase their smartphones from the carriers as is the case in the United States.

Users get their SIM cards from the carrier and then put them in handsets bought on the black market. The operators thus have very little control over the software that is running on the smartphones.

Other operators in Iran are already offering 2.5G and even 3G services. There is huge demand for such services and very little capacity. The government comprehends the need and the potential source of revenue. I think that is the primary motivation behind the rollout of the new 3G network.

Both authors use a pseudonym.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

SHAREtwitterfacebookSTUMBLEUPONbalatarin reddit digg del.icio.us
blog comments powered by Disqus

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.