By Ben Elgin, Vernon Silver and Alan Katz – Oct 30, 2011
The Iranian officers who knocked out Saeid Pourheydar’s four front teeth also enlightened the opposition journalist. Held in Evin Prison for weeks following his arrest early last year for protesting, he says, he learned that he was not only fighting the regime, but also companies that armed Tehran with technology to monitor dissidents like him.
Pourheydar, 30, says the power of this enemy became clear as intelligence officers brandished transcripts of his mobile phone calls, e-mails and text messages during his detention. About half the political prisoners he met in jail told him police had tracked their communications and movements through their cell phones, he says.
“This is a commerce of death for the companies that place this technology in the hands of dictatorships,” Pourheydar says.
Even as the pariah state pursued a brutal political crackdown, including arrests and executions surrounding its contested 2009 elections, European companies supplied Iran with location tracking and text-message monitoring equipment that can turn mobile phones into tools for surveillance.
Stockholm-based Ericsson AB, Creativity Software Ltd. of the U.K. and Dublin-based AdaptiveMobile Security Ltd. marketed or provided gear over the past two years that Iran’s law enforcement or state security agencies would have access to, according to more than 100 documents and interviews with more than two dozen technicians and managers who worked on the systems.
Ericsson and Creativity Software offered technology expressly for law enforcement use — including a location- monitoring product proposed by Ericsson in early 2009 and one sold this year by Creativity, according to the interviews.
Tracking Political Activists
The findings provide a rare window into how companies equip Iran’s surveillance operation.
Iranian authorities routinely use surveillance to round-up and interrogate political activists, according to accounts provided by victims and human rights groups.
The suppliers of this gear are complicit in the human rights abuses for which Iran has been repeatedly condemned, U.S. Senator Mark Kirk says.
“The CEOs of these companies have no ability to look themselves in the mirror,” says Kirk, an Illinois Republican who is sponsoring legislation to tighten sanctions against selling Iran tools for repression. “If they are making such sales, then probably a poor human rights activist is being hooked up to alligator clips because of what they’ve done.”
Whether the technology is destined for police, security services or other intelligence agencies makes little difference, says Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy group focusing on terrorism.
“There’s very little distinction between the arms of the Iranian regime in terms of the use of technologies to monitor and target dissidents,” he says.
Ericsson, the world’s largest maker of wireless networks, confirmed that in the fourth quarter of 2009 it sold a mobile- positioning center for customer billing purposes to MTN Irancell Telecommunications Services Co., Iran’s second-largest mobile provider.
When Iranian security officers needed to locate a target one night in late 2009, one former Ericsson employee says he got an emergency call to come into the office to fix a glitch in an Ericsson positioning center.
Ericsson says it will continue to maintain the system, but that it decided in October 2010 it would no longer sell any products into Iran due to recent efforts to tighten sanctions.
Enabling Law Enforcement
Early this year, Creativity Software sold a system that enables Iranian law enforcement and security forces to monitor cell phone locations, according to three people familiar with the transaction. With it, police can track a target’s movements every 15 seconds and plot the locations on a map, according to a 19-page company product specification document. Creativity Software confirms that Irancell is a client, but declined to discuss sales of any location-tracking gear for law enforcement purposes, saying it would breach contract confidentiality.
AdaptiveMobile, backed by the investment arm of Intel Corp. (INTC), proposed a system in partnership with Ericsson for Iran’s largest mobile provider in 2010 that would filter, block and store cell phone text messages, according to two people familiar with the discussions. An Ericsson spokesman confirmed the proposal.
The Irish company still services commercial gear for a similar system it sold in 2008 to Irancell. Police have access to the system, say two former Irancell managers.
Calls for Controls
AdaptiveMobile says its technologies are for fighting spam, viruses and “inappropriate content,” not designed or sold for law enforcement. It says it plans to cease doing business in Iran when its contract is up in late 2012, because continuing in Iran’s current political climate could damage its reputation.
The three European companies continued to do business in Iran amid calls in the U.S. and European Union for greater export controls on such gear. It is legal in most countries to sell this technology to Iran.
And they continued after competitor Nokia Siemens Networks faced an international “No to Nokia” boycott and European parliamentary hearings after its 2008 delivery of communications intercept equipment to Iran.
Exports of these systems are largely unregulated, and industry secrecy can make sales difficult to document, says Dubowitz. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in June that it had been unable to identify any companies selling systems to Iran for monitoring or interfering with citizens’ free speech.
Telling the World
Iran’s electronic repression came of age after the country’s June 2009 presidential elections, which sparked international allegations of vote-rigging when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner over three challengers.
In a precursor to this year’s Arab Spring, citizens turned to digital communications such as text messages and social networking to organize demonstrations and tell the world what was happening as the government cracked down. Texting has become the predominant means of digital communications because more than 70 percent of Iranian households have a mobile phone — four-times greater than the percentage with internet access.
Note: The very same practices are being conducted here in the U.S., Occupy organizers have been heavily targeted and even framed for arrest. In many respects technology has become our enemy…