The Iranian government’s decision to shut down social media apps in the wake of countrywide protests is only the latest chapter in the Islamic regime’s use of internet technologies to secretly monitor and repress dissidents.
Since 2009, Iran’s mullahs have mastered the surveillance capabilities of the internet and smart phones, in large part due to critical help they’ve received from western telecom companies, according to a Daily Caller News Foundation investigation.
Their technical help permits Iranian authorities to read emails and text messages, track online activity as well as tap phone calls and monitor the movement of activists with their smart phones, according to Reporters Without Borders.
The sale of Western telecom technology to the Islamic state, which could be used to spy on its citizens, is the “West’s dirty little secret,” according to an Iranian dissident who once was attached to the U.S. Government’s Middle East Broadcasting Networks. Although he lives in the U.S., he asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation by the Iranian regime.
At least 13 people have died as demonstrations continue to sweep across Iranian cities, according to The New York Times. The unrest constitutes the largest nationwide protests since the “Green Revolution” of 2009. At the time, President Barack Obama largely ignored the demonstrations, and Tehran brutally suppressed them.
The Islamist regime banned Twitter and Facebook for years, but on Sunday Iranian authorities shut down Telegram and Instagram, two popular social media apps. The move is an attempt to limit communications between the protesters and to cut them off from the western world.
The Trump administration called on the regime Tuesday to unblock Instagram and its social media apps.
The issue of the West’s complicity with Tehran came to public notice in 2010, when Isa Saharkhiz, an imprisoned Iranian journalist, sued Helsinki-based Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN). Saharkhiz charged that the telecommunications company provided the Islamist regime with smart phones that could be used to trace the movements of Green Revolution activists.
While the Finnish company claimed it was not responsible for actions taken after it sold its smart phones to customers in Iran, the company conceded that the firm allowed the “lawful interception capability to both operators” and helped a “related monitoring center.”
“My client is just one example of hundreds of prisoners who have been arrested and tortured because the government found them through the NSN system,” charged Ali Herischi, a lawyer who then represented Saharkhiz.
“My question is why they decided to provide Iran with the monitoring function when they knew that [the government] was abusing human rights and suppressing the opposition,” he added. The company ended its sales of phones to Iran in 2012. It is a partnership between Japan’s Nokia and Germany’s Siemens.
Siemens, the parent company located in Germany also furnished a computer control system for Iran’s nuclear weapon uranium enrichment sites. The system was allegedly penetrated by Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies using a malicious code called Stuxnet which sought to destroy nuclear-related equipment at various Iranian sites.
Siemens states on its website that it “is wholly committed to Iran’s economic development and sustainable future.”
One of the largest western telecom companies that continue to operate in Iran is Ericsson, a Swedish firm that has also operated in other authoritarian countries such as Syria, Cuba and Sudan, according to a company filing before the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The EU in 2011 tried to stop Ericsson from selling its phone in Syria as part of sanctions against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Aggressive lobbying by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, however, allowed the company to operate in the country in defiance of the EU.
“The diplomats said it was very unusual for Sweden, known as a staunch defender of human rights, to block sanctions,” according to a Reuters report posted during the EU debate.
Former President Bill Clinton also reportedly intervened with the U.S. State Department when his wife was secretary of state to permit Ericsson to continue selling its equipment to Iran, despite official U.S. government sanctions.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump accused Bill Clinton of accepting $750,000 in speaking fees in return for his wife’s protection of Ericsson from State Department sanctions for its business in Iran.
Ericsson did pay Bill Clinton $750,000 to speak in November 2011 at Ericsson’s first Networked Society Forum event in Hong Kong, according to RCRWireless News.
Ericsson did not address Trump’s accusation that Hillary Clinton left the firm off the list of sanctioned companies in return for the hefty speaking fee, but instead claimed that its Iranian operations was not the reason they chose Bill Clinton as a speaker.
“The situation regarding Iran had no impact on the decision to select President Clinton and was not considered by the project team [for the Networked Society Forum event],” Ericsson said in a statement.
In 2012, Israeli and European diplomats reported that Bildt opposed the strengthening of sanctions against Iran for fear it would imperil Ericsson.
A number of Israeli newspapers, citing Israeli diplomats, reported that some European governments were extremely upset with the Swedes for its opposition to stronger sanctions against Iran. Germany, France and the United Kingdom were named.
As a sign of displeasure at the Israeli report, the Swedish Foreign Minister summoned the Israeli ambassador. Later, Bildt did not refute the charge but lashed out in a tweet about Israeli “occupation and settlements.”
In January 2016, Reporters Without Borders criticized the role of high-tech western companies in selling their technology to authoritarian governments to allow it to spy on its citizens. The non-governmental organization based in Paris stated in a report that it “reiterates its condemnation of the criminal cooperation between western high-tech companies and authoritarian regimes.”
Citing an imprisoned journalist, the group charged, “(Iranian) intelligence officers had printouts of his e-mails, SMS messages, and transcripts of phone conversations when questioning him, and that other inmates had similar experiences.”
In January 2016, the organization reissued a 2013 report titled “Enemies of the Internet,” which found China, Syria and Iran among those governments that use the internet to spy on its citizens.
“Businesses sell technology to authoritarian regimes that allows them to carry out large-scale online surveillance of their population,” they charged in a separate report, also released in January 2016.
In 2012, New Jersey Republican Rep. Chris Smith introduced the “Global Online Freedom Act” designed “to prevent United States businesses from cooperating with repressive governments in transforming the internet into a tool of censorship and surveillance,” but the bill died in Congress.
The other western companies that provide Iran internet and telecom technologies are Samsung, a South Korean company, Vodafone, from the United Kingdom, and Orange S.A. of France.
Vodafone entered the Iranian marketplace last year as sanctions were lifted on the regime, following the U.S. signing a nuclear deal with Tehran.
The Chinese telecom giant Huawei also provides telecom technology to Iran. After a blistering 2012 House Intelligence Committee report, Huawei was largely banned from selling its products in the U.S. over cybersecurity concerns but the company is trying to re-enter the U.S. market.
The issue of the western complicity with Iran’s surveillance agencies first emerged in 2009 during the Green Revolution, when students and others took to the streets to demand political reforms.
Following the 2009 protests, “the mullahs created a ‘Cyber Army’ that operated under the Revolutionary Guards,” according to a 2015 report by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
This army “is charged with attacking and bringing down any domestic website that engages in activities the authorities perceive as transgressive — as well as hacking and disrupting the websites of perceived foreign enemies,” the board stated, citing the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran.
Human rights activists were further concerned last August when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani nominated Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi to lead the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology.
Jahromi built parts of Iran’s massive surveillance infrastructure while working in the Intelligence Ministry, according to an August 2017 report by the center.
His nomination alarmed “civil rights activists that he could use his new position to expand already extensive online state spying operations on citizens,” according to the center.
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