The Iranian government has high-tech equipment that will enable it to trace thousands of activists who have encouraged the recent demonstrations and spread news about them by using Twitter, cell phones and other Web-based social networks.
The government recently bought sophisticated computer servers and monitoring devices from a German-Finnish joint venture that can catalog cell-phone calls and text messages. The regime also controls Web traffic through a single bank of computers, which makes it easier to filter sites such as Facebook and Twitter and to monitor Iranians who use these sites to communicate with the outside world.
“Iran’s pervasive surveillance of their digital networks and the use of unencrypted connections by dissidents could be a recipe for reprisals later down the line,” Danny O’Brien, the international outreach coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The Washington Times on Thursday.
“The fact that Iran runs all of its Web traffic through a single bank of computers, which is how they block Web sites, is also a perfect way to monitor for key words. If you are not using strong encryption, then all those communications could be stored by the government,” he said.
The Times reported in April that Iran had acquired what is known as a “monitoring center” from a joint venture, Nokia-Siemens-Network, late last year. The computer servers and software in the monitoring center allow Iran’s telephone company to monitor a vast array of wireless traffic including text messages and voice calls.
“There are so many people using text messaging and Twitter,” said Lily Mazahery, a U.S.-based lawyer who represents Iranian dissidents. “It might be impossible to monitor everybody, but they are trying. They are likely monitoring key individuals. I think they are trying and I don’t know how well they are succeeding.”
A recent survey of Iran’s Internet filtering system conducted by the Open Net Initiative concluded that Iran was expanding its monitoring and filtering capabilities.
The report, issued June 16, said the Revolutionary Guard, the country’s elite military force, “has begun to play an active role in enforcing Internet content standards. In conjunction with expansive surveillance, this increase in regulatory attention exacerbates an online atmosphere that promotes self-censorship and discourages dissenting views.”
On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that the Revolutionary Guard warned the operators of opposition Web sites that “legal action will be very strong” against individuals who continue to operate sites deemed a threat to the state.
In the interim, some Iranians have begun to find a way around the censors using a new technology known as the “Tor Project,” a Web site that lets the user disguise his Internet provider address through other proxy sites around the world. Also on Twitter, a call went out on Thursday for all non-Iranian users to change their time zone to Iran in order to confuse Internet censors.