How foreign firms tried to sell spy gear to Iran

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In the summer of 2008, Iranian security agents arrived at the family home of Saleh Hamid, who was visiting his parents during a break from his university studies.

The plain-clothes agents, he says, shackled him and drove him blindfolded to a local intelligence detention center. There, he says, they beat him with an iron bar, breaking bones and damaging his left ear and right eye.

Hamid says the authorities accused him of spreading propaganda against the regime and contacting opposition groups outside Iran. The evidence? His own phone calls.

“They said, ‘On this and this day you spoke to such and such person,’” says Hamid, now 30 and a human rights activist in Sweden. “They had both recorded it and later they also showed me the transcript.”

Hamid was not the only one. The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and other human rights groups say they have documented a number of cases in which the Iranian regime has used the country’s communications networks to crack down on dissidents by monitoring their telephone calls or internet activities.

Now a Reuters investigation has uncovered new evidence of how willing some foreign companies were to assist Iran’s state security network, and the regime’s keenness to access as much information as possible.

Documents seen by Reuters show that a partner of China’s Huawei Technologies offered to sell a Huawei-developed “Lawful Interception Solution” to MobinNet, Iran’s first nationwide wireless broadband provider, just as MobinNet was preparing to launch in 2010.

The system’s capabilities included “supporting the special requirements from security agencies to monitor in real time the communication traffic between subscribers,” according to a proposal by Huawei’s Chinese partner seen by Reuters.

Huawei also gave MobinNet a PowerPoint marketing presentation on a system that features “deep packet inspection” - a powerful and potentially intrusive technology that can read and analyse ‘packets’ of data that travel across the Internet. Internet service providers use DPI to guard against cyber attacks and improve network efficiency, but it also can be used to block websites, track internet users and reconstruct email messages.

Huawei says it has never sold either system to MobinNet and doesn’t sell DPI equipment in Iran. But a person familiar with the matter says MobinNet did obtain a Huawei DPI system before it began operating in 2010. The person does not know how MobinNet acquired it or if it is being used.

The relative ease with which Iran has been able to obtain technology that enables surveillance illustrates the cat-and-mouse nature of the American-European campaign to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions through crippling economic sanctions. It wasn’t until this year that Europe and Washington — which primarily have focused on Iran’s banks and oil industry — targeted the sale of monitoring gear to Iran. But even now, the ban is not global, and does not extend to Chinese companies.

Reuters reported in March that China’s ZTE had recently sold Iran’s largest telecom firm, Telecommunication Co of Iran, a DPI-based surveillance system that was capable of monitoring landline, mobile and internet communications.

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