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Are Tech Companies Helping Iran Censor the Net?

At first, technology appeared to be playing a positive role in Iran's uprising, giving protesters an online voice through services such as Twitter.

Now, however, the Wall Street Journal has reported that Nokia Siemens provided Iran's government with the Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology it needs to monitor communications and crush dissent in an article entitled "Iran's Web Spying Aided By Western Technology -- European Gear Used in Vast Effort to Monitor Communications."

Nokia Siemens Networks has denied supplying DPI technology to Iran, but admits supplying the technology Iran needs to monitor cell phone and telephone conversations.

Amid the furor, Internet experts paint a more nuanced story. They say that there's a limit to what we can know about what's going on in Iran, but that it's clear that a firewall is active, and that traffic statistics suggest but do not prove that the government is interfering with applications.

What we know

Nokia Siemens Networks is the only other company, besides SmartFilter, fingered in the Wall Street Journal's article as providing technology to Iran. A representative of Nokia Siemens Networks told InternetNews.com in an e-mail that the only surveillance technology the company provided Iran is that used to monitor phone calls as required by law.

"In most countries around the world, including all EU member states and the U.S., telecommunications networks are legally required to have the capability for Lawful Intercept and this is also the case in Iran," the representative said.

The company did not supply DPI technology to Iran, wrote Ben Roome, head of media relations for Nokia Siemens Networks in a blog post.

"The restricted functionality monitoring center provided by Nokia Siemens Networks in Iran cannot provide data monitoring, Internet monitoring, deep packet inspection, international call monitoring or speech recognition," Roome wrote. "Therefore, contrary to speculation in the media, the technology supplied by Nokia Siemens Networks cannot be used for the monitoring or censorship of Internet traffic."

What we can guess

Internet traffic experts and DPI firms have been hard at work assessing the traffic into and out of Iran, but such data only provides a certain level of insight into the motives and actions of the government of Iran.

Experts believe that specific applications are being targeted, but cannot prove that the government is using a specific technology such as DPI.

"Why are they allowing traffic to continue? Why not switch it off," James Cowie of Renesys, a company that collects Internet traffic data, asked InternetNews.com. The implication is that anything the government allows in is something it can monitor.

The article appears to contradict itself. First it says "the Iranian government appears to be engaging in a practice often called deep packet inspection … The monitoring capability was provided, at least in part, by a joint venture of Siemens AG, the German conglomerate, and Nokia Corp., the Finnish cellphone company, in the second half of 2008, Ben Roome, a spokesman for the joint venture, confirmed."

Then it admits "It couldn't be determined whether the equipment from Nokia Siemens Networks is used specifically for deep packet inspection."

Did the Wall Street Journal accidentally misinterpret what Roome said? Roome suggests that's the case in his blog post, but network expert David Isenberg suggested that the misquoting might be intentional in his own blog.

"Chris Rhoads, the reporter who co-wrote today's story, also co-wrote a story that painted what I said to support something I didn't mean," Isenberg wrote. "Two other sources for that story, Larry Lessig and Rick Whitt, also felt the same way!"

The Wall Street Journal's recent record on headline-grabbing stories is patchy. Its report that fighter plane data was stolen turned out to be true, but the Journal had not mentioned that the data was stolen in 2005, so it was not a story about events that happened this year.

A Journal story that the U.S. electrical grid was hacked by spies may have been true but was difficult to assess because it is impossible to prove that spies and not hackers or criminals did the work. Again, malicious activity dates back for some time, in this case possibly to 1997.

Also, did the Wall Street Journal follow the lead of another publication? CNET today noted that a similar article accusing Nokia Siemens Networks of supplying a "spy system" to Iran appeared in the Washington Times two months ago.

Send in the orcs!

Observers should not jump to conclusions. It's possible that that heavy usage, not censorship, is the true cause of Iran's net slowdown. "Interestingly, game protocols like XBox and World of Warcraft show little evidence of government manipulation," wrote Arbor Networks' Labovitz. "Perhaps games provide a possible source of covert channels (e.g. 'Bring your elves to the castle on the island of Azeroth and we'll plan the next Ahmadinejad protest rally?')"