From a leaked classified internal document from the Syrian Arab Republic’s Communication Department dated February 2, 2012, we have learned that an Iranian company will be taking over the construction of Internet surveillance and monitoring stations across Syria.
The initial contract was being serviced by an Italian company, Area SpA. However, Area SpA exited the country in November, 2011, when news of the contract was reported by Bloomberg in the midst of a bloody civil war that has cost over 30,000 lives so far, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. The document, addressed to the minister of telecommunications and technology, requests that all remaining funds for the failed Area SpA contract be consolidated and made available to an Iranian company that will be completing the work ahead of schedule.
It is unknown what Iranian company will be servicing the contract or if additional U.S.-made technology would be used to complete the Syrian Internet surveillance system; however, it is well known that Area SpA’s contract relied heavily on sensitive technology from companies such as California-based NetApp Inc., French company Qosmos SA, and Germany’s Utimaco Safeware AG. Whatever the hardware or technology to be used for this project, one thing is clear: The people of Syria will suffer from its use.
According to Reporters without Borders, a French based non-profit organization that monitors aggression against freedom of press and speech worldwide, Iran is the first country to have sentenced four netizens to death earlier this year. The four individuals, Saed Malekpour, Ahmadreza Hashempour, Vahid Ashari, and Mehdi Alizadeh, were website administrators, programmers, and an Internet technology (IT) student accused of maintaining sites that “insulted Islam” and promoted “anti-government agitation.” These individuals have reportedly been tortured and forced to confess to participation in Western plots involving the United States and Israel.
It is also reported that over 29 individuals have been arrested for online activities from the period of March 1, 2011, to March 1, 2012; they have all received sentences ranging from three to six years in prison. Shocking as this is, the Iranian government is moving full steam ahead with a dramatic expansion of its Internet filtering capabilities and suppression of individual freedoms, in many cases with equipment manufactured by U.S. and European corporations.
Reuters reported on October 8 that the U.S.-based networking equipment manufacturer Cisco Systems Inc. had suspended a longstanding partnership with ZTEC, a Chinese-based telecommunications manufacturer and distributor. It is alleged that ZTEC sold Cisco networking equipment to the state-run Telecommunication Co of Iran (TCI). This equipment would have been used in much the same way Cisco equipment is used in the Great Firewall of China, a massive Internet filtering system that, according to Amnesty International, employs 30,000-50,000 Internet police to monitor chat rooms, delete blog posts, and edit Internet search results.
It is not terribly surprising that Iranian telecommunication companies are increasingly purchasing more advanced networking gear, since they have claimed since mid-2011 to be creating an entirely separate, “pure” version of the Internet for Iran’s citizens, that would be totally blocked off from the rest of the world. This Iranian Internet is allegedly in the last phase of completion and has become more advanced in its filtering capabilities over the last year, culminating in the complete blockade of popular web services Google video and Google mail. Gmail service has since been restored in the country, but more advanced filtering capabilities such as HTTPS blocking continues to be tested intermittently.
If history is any guide, we should look towards the lessons of East Berlin before the fall of the wall to see how surveillance and imprisonment can have a chilling effect on society. The Stasi once employed hundreds of thousands of informants and even had its own dedicated phone system to eavesdrop on most of East Germany, not unlike the modern network surveillance systems implemented by Iran and Syria. Dissidents were executed, imprisoned, spied upon by their neighbors, and, in some cases, even reportedly irradiated with x-ray machines while in prison, only to later die of cancer. Most disturbing, however, was the popular technique of Zersetzung, whereby Stasi operatives would corrode or disintegrate social circles, friends, and families in an attempt to quell unrest or non-state-sanctioned political dialogue. It is definitely worth mentioning that the Stasi did help establish many of the most repressive state intelligence services around the world, such as Idi Amin’s secret police and the Syrian Intelligence Services.
How many brilliant minds and ideas have been quelled by authoritarian regimes? What if the next Google, Facebook, or Twitter could have come from an Iranian IT student who now faces the death penalty? The Internet serves as an incubator for innovation and allows individuals to tap into a global economy, offering unparalleled education and opportunities. Decades worth of global progress are likely lost on a daily basis to selfish dictators who are concerned only with their positions of power and not the well-being of their people. If they were, they likely wouldn’t be censoring the Internet.