When Iranian journalist Ahmad Jalali Farahani was arrested back in 2009, he was confronted with the contents of his private mails. Even though he had created the email account using a different name the Iranian security forces were fully aware. He was imprisoned and subjected to torture.
»The Republican Guard completely follow what people write in their emails, on Facebook and on Twitter,« says Farahani.
Until he was arrested, he worked for Mehr, the official Iranian news agency. He received information from all over the country about protests and demonstrations, information too controversial to be used in the news agencys official work. Instead he published it through other channels, e.g. Facebook. However, after the elections in June 2009, when people took to the streets in protest against Ahmadinejad's election victory, it was clear to the Iranians that the Internet is in no way safe.
»Nearly 4000 people were arrested solely on the basis of monitoring of their private internet traffic«, says Farahani.
Danish aid to Iran
Now it seems that the Danish company RanTek helps the Iranian regime with the monitoring of the Iranian population. The day before Christmas the Bloomberg news agency reported that the Danish IT company re-packages and sells surveillance equipment to Iran.
Ironically, the equipment originally comes from the Israeli manufacturer Allot Communications, which means that the Israelis through a Danish intermediary have helped their mortal enemies.
Allot told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that they do not know about the resale, and that it is a breach of their contract with the Danish firm.
The equipment goes under the name NetEnforcer and consists of a box which enables you to manage data traffic, e.g. optimizing bandwidth usage, by prioritizing mails higher than Web surfing. RanTek's Danish CEO, Morten Kolind, has not responded to inquiries over the matter but in a press release he rejects that the equipment can be used for repressive purposes.
»With NetEnforcer, we cannot see the contents of the data traffic«, says Kolind.
However, according to several experts this is not true.
»NetEnforcer makes it possible to distinguish different types of data from each other. And when one can do that, one can also view the contents«, explains Marcin de Kaminski, internet researcher at Lund University and active member of the think tank The Julia Group which promotes a free internet.
De Kaminski does not know the specific model but explains that although the ability to view the contents of the data traffic is not the main function of the equipment, it can easily be used for that.
»With a skilled technician and possibly some additional hardware there are all kinds of possibilities to use NetEnforcer to monitor the content of the data communication,« says de Kaminski.
With the equipment you can locate where in the network specific individuals are located and what type of software is being used.
»Perhaps NetEnforcer cannot do it all alone, but together with other equipment and know-how, it can certainly be used to monitor data traffic content,« says de Kaminski.
This assessment is backed up by hacker Jacob Appelbaum, another specialist in this field.
»These systems are used for full-blown spying,« says Appelbaum. He is part of the development team behind Tor, the world's most widely used anonymity software that provides security for dissidents around the world.
Equipment such as NetEnforcer can just be used to block the use of Tor, making it impossible to hide one's identity on the net.
»The fact is that by pressing a few buttons one can use this equipment far beyond what the law permits in those countries, from where it is sold. The equipment may be sold for innocent purposes but is used for a number of others,« says Appelbaum.
He criticises the fact that Denmark allows the kind of equipment to be sold to countries such as Iran.
»These surveillance systems can be compared with a hangman's noose or a rocket launcher. Why should we for as much as a moment think that it ends well for the people, they are directed at? This equipment is used to murder people, and we should not look the other way,« says Appelbaum.