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The Mideast

Is Iran Producing Its Own Spy Technology?

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Pictures of the Iranian woman Neda Agha-Soltan, who was killed during a post election anti-government protest, are placed on Albertina Square during a demonstration in Vienna January 23, 2010. Agha-Soltan became a symbol for protests against Tehran's hardline leaders after graphic footage of her death was seen around the world on the Internet. (Reuters)

Iran may not be importing cyber spy equipment, according to a newly released government report, yet the Iranian regime’s beefed up cyber surveillance abilities have many believing that Tehran has begun producing its own homegrown spy technology.

The report, issued last week by Congress’ investigative division, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), was unsuccessful in tracking specific suppliers selling high-level communications spy technology. Recent government crackdowns, however, have officials certain that Iran is employing sophisticated monitoring equipment in suppressing online opposition.

The finding was announced at the end of a four-month study, aimed to enforce broadened sanctions imposed against the Iranian government in July 2010, which forbade the U.S. government from doing business with companies that export sensitive technology to Iran.

The question remains whether communications technology is purchased from abroad or developed by Iranians, making the government self-sufficient in defending itself against the opposition’s ongoing cyber revolution.

Since the 2009 post-election uprisings in Iran, protesters facing brutal government retaliation on the street turned to the Internet and the use of social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, as well as blogging sites, as effective and popular avenues to unite, organize and voice disenchantment against the government.

“I don’t think they’re completely self sufficient,” said Austin Heap, executive director of the Censorship Research Center, who also works on developing technologies for increasing Internet freedom. “But having seen the Iranian government’s operating manuals, I can say for a fact that they are definitely producing technology in Iran.”

Shortly after the 2009 Iranian elections, Heap, a 26-year-old programmer living in Northern California, instructed Iranians on how to run proxy servers to access government-blocked Internet sites. After studying the Iranian government’s technology, he developed Haystack, a piece of software that encrypts data and hides Web activity.

“I don’t think any company sold them a complete censorship package. It’s three-fold. It’s partially the technology parts they’ve already received; it’s using programming from other countries, and they most certainly are getting better. If you look at 2009 till now, they’ve gotten so much smarter.”

A significant indicator of the government’s enhanced technological capability was the strategic and targeted attack on a software program called Tor, a routing device that became popular during the 2009 demonstrations.

The program, funded and developed by U.S. government agencies, allows anyone to connect to the Internet safely through a private network that hides IP addresses. The software is free to download and encrypts messaging and browsing history.

Tor was designed to protect against a common type of Internet shadowing called “traffic analysis,” which can track a user’s source and location.

At its peak, Tor was the leading anti-surveillance technology available with about 250,000 users connected to its network at a given time. Users in Iran more than doubled in the aftermath of the demonstrations.

By early January this year, more than 95 percent of Tor’s connections collapsed as the central Iranian broadband provider successfully crashed the network. According to experts, the Iranian government had been working for years on a way to intercept the program.

“Interrupting these technologies is not magic. What causes a problem is the speed at which they have to receive messages,” Heap said. “It’s like the post office opening every letter to see the content. Imagine doing this a million times a second. They don’t have to discover something new; they just have to throw more money at it to do it faster.”

In a broader effort to control dissidents in its ongoing “soft war” against foreign ideas and influence, the Iranian government announced its most aggressive tactic earlier this year, threatening to cut Iranian access to the global Internet as early as August and instead running a parallel “halal,” or Islamically lawful network that censors and blocks even the most mainstream sites.

Though experts say the initiative to completely ban broad Internet service across Iran appears too daunting a task for any government, the option of a twin network system is entirely feasible and has been implemented by Cuba and North Korea.

In response to intensifying crackdowns on communication, the State Department, furnished with a $2 million grant, has been working on a system that will provide dissidents access to a portable Internet and independent cellphones to safely communicate. The free-standing system, called “Internet in a Suitcase,” as it could secretly be carried from place to place or across sensitive borders and speedily set up to deliver wireless communication, has been developed to work around censorship and telecommunications shutdowns.

Last week, Iranian Communications and Information Technology Minister Reza Taqipour announced that Iran has preemptively prepared to combat the Internet in a Suitcase plan, calling the U.S. initiative “cyber terrorism.”

Internet in a Suitcase has been built on a wireless technology, surpassing mainstream Internet service providers in the U.S. and all over the world, making interception nearly impossible. The only chance of service interruption is through high-scale radio frequency jamming.

“They can’t shut down connections entirely, because they need it for banking and government duties,” Heap said.

“If you disrupt the source of economic value creation, that will cause a bigger problem, and the Iranian government knows that. Revolutions happen when people are hungry.”