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Cyber war on the people

The use of the Internet, mobile phones and social networking sites to mobilise against repressive regimes and send videos, photos and information around the world has reached a high point in Iran. But what few realise is that the Iranian state’s ability to block, censor and filter websites and monitor mobiles comes courtesy of imported technology.

A Wall Street Journal report this week claimed that the "Iranian regime has developed, with the assistance of European telecommunications companies, one of the world's most sophisticated mechanisms for controlling and censoring the Internet, allowing it to examine the content of individual online communications on a massive scale."

The article named Nokia Siemens Networks as the provider of equipment capable of "deep packet inspection." Nokia Siemens, a joint venture between the Finnish and German companies, supplied the system called the Monitoring Centre to Iran Telecom in the second half of 2008. The product allows authorities to monitor any communications across a network, including voice calls, text messaging, instant messages, and web traffic.

A spokesman described the system as "a standard architecture that the world's governments use for lawful intercept". He added: "Western governments, including the UK, don't allow you to build networks without having this functionality." All I can say is, thank God the intercepts are “lawful”.

Don’t think that Iran or “Western governments” are the only ones at it, however. China’s sophisticated Internet monitoring and censoring capabilities, referred to as "the Great Firewall of China," were built with the help of Cisco, a California-based maker of Internet routers, according to leaked US Congressional hearings. The Chinese government now requires any computer to include software called "Green Dam," which critics say will further empower the government to monitor Internet use.

Which makes you wonder what the publication yesterday of New Labour’s “national cyber security strategy” is really all about. Ostensibly set up to counter security threats from foreign powers in what is now described as a “cyber cold war”, the strategy is also undoubtedly aimed at you and me. A new operations centre will be attached to GCHQ in Cheltenham. A Whitehall office dealing with cyber-security will also be set up in ­Whitehall with staff from spooks agencies MI5 and MI6.

It was left to Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, Tom Brake, to warn: "This new cyber-security strategy could lead to an extension of the government's invasive counter-terrorism powers, which already pose significant threats to our civil liberties." He was no doubt referring to the state’s “lawful” powers to monitor emails and mobile calls, as well as house arrest and the withholding of evidence at trials.

Then there is the adaptation of plans originally drawn up to show how Britain would have been governed in the event of nuclear war, and which have been disclosed with the publication of the 30-year old version of the hitherto secret government “War Book”. Over 16 chapters it gives precise plans and instructions. The country would have been divided into 12 regions, each governed by cabinet ministers with wide powers, aided by senior military officers, chief constables and judges and based in bunkers.

A former senior civil servant told the BBC this week that some of the contingency plans had been adapted and brought into use during the 2000 fuel protests, which threatened petrol supplies: "We took over the bunker and installed a chief constable and representatives of the oil companies and some civil servants and we built from scratch a crisis management machine. That's exactly what you don't want to have to do in a crisis, because a lot of time's spent just organising who's going to talk to who and how it's going to work."

And no doubt the plans have been further developed to take account of the economic and financial crisis and the growing disdain for the political system. The point of this story is that the struggle to defeat the state and replace it with a real democracy needs to be taken seriously. Because we know that the other side is doing just that.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
26 June 2009

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