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article imageWestern Companies, Iran, China and the Media Backlash

By KJ Mullins     Jun 23, 2009 in Business
Siemens AG and Nokia Corp are denying that their technology is being used by Iran to censor and spy on the online activities of their citizens.
Nokia Siemens Network announced on Monday that while Iran's government did buy telecommunications systems. That equipment according to Nokia Siemens has built-in monitoring technology that will only work on voice communications and not on the Internet.
CBS reports:
"The lawful intercept capability is purely for local voice calls," spokesman Ben Roome told CBSNews.com. "We don't know who may have provided other Internet technologies to Iran."
Any Western company that is linked with the Iranian governments monitoring of its citizens could have lasting business implications.
When Yahoo did business with China Washington's politicians were quick to attack CEO Jerry Yang. Cisco faced the similar scrutiny when the company sold Internet switches and routes to China.
The Wall Street Journal has gone on the attack against Nokia Siemens Networks concerning Iran. On Monday's front page the paper proclaimed: "Iran's Web Spying Aided By Western Technology."
"We didn't know they could do this much," said a network engineer in Tehran. "Now we know they have powerful things that allow them to do very complex tracking on the network."
This claim can be disputed by the company but the headline will stick with readers during this time of unrest in the Middle Eastern country.
Spokesman for Nokia Siemens Networks, Ben Roome has had to face the accusations from the major news source pointing out the inaccuracies of the article. While there may be faults concerning wiretap-ready mobile phone networking that network has allowed for the rest of the world to hear communications from within the country during this crisis.
"Mobile networks in Iran, and the subsequent widespread adoption of mobile phones, have allowed Iranians to communicate what they are seeing and hearing with the outside world," he said. "The proof of this is in the widespread awareness of the current situation."
It is difficult to know what technology is being used by the Iranian government to track their citizens use of the Internet and mobile cell phones. In 2005 a Berkman Center report stated that Iran was using Secure Computing's SmartFilter to block the use of the Web from its citizens.
At that time company president John McNulty was quoted as saying: "We have been made aware of ISPs in Iran making illegal and unauthorized attempts to use of our software. Secure Computing is actively taking steps to stop this illegal use of our products."
The software is now owned by McAfee and marketed under the name McAfee SmartFilter.
CBS
reports:
"We have never seen any direct evidence or hard proof that Iran has ever used any McAfee or Secure Computing product," McAfee said in an e-mailed statement on Monday. "McAfee complies with all export laws and regulation applicable to its products. Rigorous due diligence was conducted prior to the acquisition of Secure Computing and there was no indication of any contract in Iran or support being provided in Iran." (A U.S. economic embargo restricts trade with Iran.)
When nations like Iran purchase such software they can claim it is for lawful activity. Claims that the West is helping them can be a powerful media tool to harm a company's name.
The reality is that Iran's ability to monitor and block the Web and cell phone use could be home grown.
The West's technology has been used though in the past by their own governments to tap citizens.
Jay Botelho, WildPackets' director of product management, said the best way for an Iranian Internet provider to monitor its customers would be to use one bank of monitoring equipment for e-mail, another for Web browsing, a third for VoIP calls, and so on. "Using our product, the easiest way to monitor everything is to hook onto an (extra port) port off your main switch," Botelho said. "The problem is that depending on the traffic, that could overload an appliance. But if you slowed everything down, you'd get everything."
In Iran that does not pose a problem. The country has limited connectivity to the outside and download speeds are much slower than in many other nations.
Providing nations with the ability to allow their citizens to communicate with the outside world can put technology companies in a Catch-22. The network systems have to have filters and those filters can be used in the wrong way by some governments. The alternative is not to provide questionable nations with the equipment but then the citizens are without the media of communication.
There is no easy answer to the dilemma.
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