Thursday, 28 January 2010

What's monitored online in Iran? How traceable are communications?

Iran has vowed to step up its efforts in digital censorship, claiming that the era of "mercy" is over.

Based on an article by AUSTIN HEAP in San Francisco

In a statement released by the Iranian Labour News Agency, national police Chief Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam stated, "These people should know where they are sending the SMS and email as these systems are under control. They should not think using proxies will prevent their identification." He added that those who have used the Internet for organising the opposition had "committed a worse crime than those who come to the streets."

They are trying to scare people off to stay away from cyber communications. Let's break down these claims. Here are a few tips and facts.

Proxies can be tracked and are easy to detect.
A proxy server is something that can help one evade the Internet censorship in Iran. It acts as a go-between for a user in Iran trying to connect to the Internet. For example, instead of connecting directly to Facebook (which is blocked) the user's computer first connects to the proxy, which then connects to Facebook on the user's behalf. BUT -- just because this can help get around the filtering does not mean your request is not being monitored/altered: If one is not using an encrypted proxy, the contents can be read and even altered.

Text messages (SMSs) can be tracked and read.
This, unfortunately, is also true. Iran uses the monitoring technology sold by Nokia Siemens. What they call "lawful intercept" technology can track and read text messages sent from cell phones. Whenever possible, people should use prepaid cell phones and calling cards to disassociate their locations and identities. It is very important to understand that by carrying a cell phone, one is essentially carrying a tracking beacon that broadcasts your location.

Email can also be tracked and read.

This is certainly true for clear-text email. When you send an email from -- let's say Hotmail to Gmail - it is routed between Hotmail's servers and Gmail's servers in plain text for the whole world to see. Good news though: it's easy to protect your e-mail. People should be accessing their email using an encrypted connection (POP + SSL or IMAPS). For extra security, they should use PGP/GPG encryption for email. Great tutorials are available for Mac and Windows.

Bottom line: If you control the network, you can control and inspect the contents. Think of sending an email like sending a FedEx package. What FedEx is to your package, the government is to your emails in Iran. But what if FedEx decided to open every box, poke around inside, and change or remove anything it didn't like? That's how it is with communications in Iran.

In a recent interview with PRI's The World, I discussed how the Iranian government will ramp up censorship on certain days considered crucial in suppressing the opposition. This demonstrates further that they are shifting tactics, grasping for an effective policy of strategic covert oppression over manic street violence.

First, it shows the regime knows the power of the Internet. They realize arresting, beating, and killing thousands of protesters inspires more and more Iranians to oppose the regime. Now, they will try to focus on silencing the organizers by controlling digital communications. Ultimately, this strategy will fail because the strength of the opposition has been its diffuseness: the organizers and protesters are one in the same.

Moreover, this new strategy demonstrates the continuing and pressing need to disseminate information and technology in Iran to allow people free communications, without fear of retribution. With the passage of time, will the government give up on the public violence against the protesters? Or are they trying to murder the vox populi before it can assume a degree of control? Either way, we have to be creative in finding ways of getting the news, info and message across the barrier. If you know techniques and know how please share it.


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