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Cyber wars in Iran

26 June 09 16:44 GMT

By Adel Shaygan
Reporter, Click

Cyberwarfare is nothing new - but recent events in Iran have given it a radically new and democratic dimension.

Since the controversial presidential election earlier this month, the cat and mouse game over control of information has been raised significantly, with opponents of the regime trying to keep one step ahead of government censorship.

Opponents of the incumbent president simply did not believe that he had won a second term earlier this month.

The streets became their battleground, the authorities their target.

Many of Iran's youth feel they have been cheated out of a chance of reform and they are prepared to fight for their beliefs.

But the wider skirmishes are being fought away from the streets. It has become a battle for control of information.

The government has been desperate to stifle coverage of the unrest. So people are taking matters into their own hands.

Satellites jammed

Iran is no stranger to revolution, but it is an unlikely staging ground for the kind of momentous technological developments of the past month.

Video footage taken by protesters from their mobile phones has become the main source by which information has reached the outside world, through sites like YouTube.

The first signs that an information war might erupt came a few days before the elections, with interruptions to SMS texting services.

After the elections pressure was ramped up, with voice calls also affected.

But probably the most surprising aspect was the interference experienced by satellite services like the BBC's Persian TV.

It is extremely popular in Iran, and within a few days found it too was offline.

The satellite pictures were jammed by directing electronic interference at the incoming signal - or "uplink" - from the ground.

The signal that is received in satellite viewers' homes - the "downlink" is also being jammed a similar way.

In response, the BBC found different satellites to reach its audience.

Internet battleground

The other battleground for information of course is the internet, with Twitter coming of age as a way of disseminating information quickly and effectively.

Maintenance for the site was delayed because of the events that were unfolding.

The Iranian authorities have responded by blocking access to social networking sites deemed unsuitable, and slowing internet speeds to a crawl.

What they have not counted on are tech savvy opponents, many of who are managing to evade the restrictions with techniques like proxy servers and anti-filtering software.

Some have gone even further, using the power of social networks to carry out so-called DDOS attacks on government run websites to take them down instead.

Usually DDOS attacks are generated by botnets, networks of hijacked computers with one or two cybercriminals in control.

These, for the first time, have been orchestrated by thousands upon thousands of people.

The Iranian government is not just blocking access to sites it does not approve of.

It would also appear to be capable of monitoring and altering data. And it seems Western companies might have provided the government with the capabilities to do this.

In 2008 European telecoms group Nokia Siemens fulfilled a contract which amongst other things provided mobile phone networking technologies.

Crucially it also provided a monitoring centre with the capability to monitor all web traffic in Iran.

Ben Roome of Nokia Siemens said: "In countries around the world wherever you provide a mobile network you intrinsically are providing the ability for whoever runs that network to listen to a small number of those calls.

"That is a lawful intercept capability built into the standards of the network.

"Then our decision is should we do business in a country at all."

The endgame in all this is still unclear. But one thing is certain: whatever the outcome on the streets, the cat-and-mouse battle for information has only just begun.

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