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Deep Packet Inspection: Telecoms Aided Iran Government to Censor Internet, Technology Widely Used in US

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As thousands in Iran turn to the web to make their voices heard around the world, a new report finds telecoms in Europe have helped the Iranian government develop one of the world’s most sophisticated mechanisms to censor the internet. It’s called deep packet inspection, and it’s also being used here at home. We speak with Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Iran. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday that European telecommunications companies have helped the Iranian government develop one of the world’s most sophisticated mechanisms to monitor and control communications on the internet. This capability was provided in part by a joint venture of the German-based Siemens AG and Nokia, the Finnish cell phone company.

The Iranian government appears to be engaging in a practice often called “deep packet inspection,” which enables authorities to block communication, gather information about individuals, as well as alter it for disinformation purposes. The Wall Street Journal also reports that China’s internet censoring mechanism is believed to use deep packet inspection, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, the media reform group Free Press says the same technology is also being widely deployed here in the United States.

To find out more about deep packet inspection and concerns about how this kind of technology can be used, we’re joined via Democracy Now! video stream by Josh Silver, the executive director of Free Press, freepress.net.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Josh. Explain what they’re doing in Iran and then how the same technology is being used here.

JOSH SILVER: Well, yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Iranian government had secured this system from a German and Finnish company that will look through everything, both land line telephones, mobile telephones, email, websites, looking for keywords and actually monitoring the entire traffic going through one chokepoint in Iran. It’s been disputed by the European company, but the validity of the report seems solid.

What’s scary about this is that this technology that monitors everything that goes through the internet is something that works, it’s readily available, and there’s no legislation in the United States that prevents the US government from employing it. And that’s what’s really the cautionary tale here.

AMY GOODMAN: Your report is called “Deep Packet Inspection: The End of the Internet as We Know It.” Why does it threaten the internet, overall?

JOSH SILVER: Well, the problem is, is that, you know, if you look back to the 1930s, when telephone service became ubiquitous around the United States, lawmakers realized then that there was this new communications infrastructure and there needed to be consumer protections so that the government and others could not unlawfully or unethically monitor and listen in to the private conversations of American citizens. They established laws that prevented that from happening. In those laws, it made it so that the government requires a legitimate warrant, issued by a judge, that lets them do such monitoring.

Now we don’t have that. So what we have is this sort of free-for-all, where the policy that governs the internet has not caught up with the technology. So you have these incredible systems, built primarily by companies like Cisco out in California, that have the ability to do this. Now, we’re not saying that AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are like the Iranian government, but we do see a problem where even our own president, with his progressive internet policy agenda, last year flipped on this issue and actually supported a Bush administration law that granted immunity to the largest phone and cable companies for turning over citizens’ private records to the government, which was illegal at the time.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Your organization, a couple of years ago, raised questions about what Comcast was doing, in terms of this issue. Could you explain that?

JOSH SILVER: Sure. Last year, we filed a suit at the Federal Communications Commission and actually sanctioned Comcast Cable, for the first time any major carrier being punished for blocking so-called network neutrality. That is, they were discriminating against certain internet content over others. And the reason these issues are so important is that all communications — phone service, web service, radio — is all moving towards an online connection, all going through the internet. So this is really about the future of all communication in America.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how does packet inspection work?

JOSH SILVER: The way deep packet inspection works is that you have sophisticated equipment that literally watches the entire internet, and it watches for every piece of data, voice, video that goes through and pulls out key words, it pulls out key — both written and spoken, and looking for things like “rebel” or “grenade” or what have you. And then it will trigger that, and that will go to the NSA version, in this case, in the country of Iran.

But the potential of this technology to give government this sort of Big Brother monitoring ability, which goes way beyond any of the constitutional protections that are in our original Constitution, are really a cautionary tale and should have everyone in this country on notice. It is notable that there’s been very little follow-up coverage of this issue since yesterday’s Wall Street Journal piece.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s happening in China, Josh Silver?

JOSH SILVER: Well, China has very similar systems. What’s a little bit interesting about what happened yesterday is that Iran seems to be — and again, this has not been completely proven — but according to the Wall Street Journal, it appears that Iran is actually monitoring this web traffic in one single chokepoint on the web, whereas China does it in many different locations. That’s not a big difference, but everyone knows that the Chinese government is terrible on protecting the privacy of their citizens. But we do have a situation where this is starting to become ubiquitous in countries with bad human rights records, and it’s one that we have to get some legislation on, both internationally and in the US Congress, if we’re going to sort of stem this.

AMY GOODMAN: Josh, can you talk more about how this can be deployed here at home, how it’s done without our knowledge, and what you feel can be done about it?

JOSH SILVER: Well, it’s widely known that the major carriers, particularly AT&T and Verizon, were being asked by the NSA, by the Bush administration, during the last seven, eight years, since 9/11 particularly, where they were asked to deploy sort of off-the-shelf technology made by some of these companies like Cisco that would do what I just described, that would listen to monitor content moving across the web and across the voice lines across this country. It was found that they did it, and a law was introduced in the Congress that would actually — would grant them immunity. It was written by telephone lobbyists. Again, Obama came out against that law and said we must punish these carriers for doing this, because it’s illegal, and then he flipped, under enormous pressure from the lobbies.

The technology is there. It’s going to get better. It’s very — relatively very easy for phone, cable companies, and thus the government, to monitor and listen and watch what we do every day on the web and on our phones. The only thing that’s going to protect us is hard, concrete laws passed by the US Congress that will make it illegal, and then effective watchdogging by the government to make sure that those laws are upheld. So, in order to do that, people need to pay attention. People need to talk to their members of Congress about it. They have to go to our website, freepress.net, and get involved and make sure that these basic protections are upheld.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Josh, on a related matter, the President Obama’s nominee for as chairman of the FCC was recently approved by the Senate. He is supposedly especially an expert on the internet. What do you see in terms of changes in FCC policy now that he’s been approved?

JOSH SILVER: Julius Genachowski is set to be approved by the Senate any day now, and it’s good news. From everything we know about Julius Genachowski, he’s a good guy. He is committed to enacting the policies of President Obama, which, as I mentioned, are very good for the most part. They are committed to net neutrality. They are committed to getting affordable, ubiquitous internet into every community, rural and urban, rich and poor, across the country.

But as is always the case, as we look at the massive lobby that is in the form of the cable and phone companies, which is as big as the military or pharmaceutical industries, the proof is in the pudding. The proof is in whether or not the administration actually makes good on their promises and gets the kind of future-proof networks installed that they promised. It is notable that Obama did pass a $7.2 billion stimulus package that goes towards building out high-speed internet across the country.

But again, this is a cautionary tale, one that reminds the public that we have to stay involved in these debates, that the public has to pay attention to crucial media issues, because they’re all tied to the failure of newspapers and the shuttering of newsrooms across the country and this fundamental question of “Will we have the communications infrastructure to both produce good-quality, hard-hitting journalism, like Democracy Now!, and effectively and affordably distribute it around the country?” And if we don’t pay attention to these issues, the distribution part is not going to work.

AMY GOODMAN: Josh Silver, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of Free Press, freepress.net. We’ll link to the website at democracynow.org.

When we come back, we’re looking at the prisoners that are being released from Guantanamo and that are being held, like one that was tortured by al-Qaeda, then held by the Taliban for a year and a half, goes to US forces for relief and is then held at Guantanamo for more than seven years. And we’ll talk about President Obama’s joke this weekend about the Uyghurs, imprisoned at Guantanamo for years, even as US officials admitted they were not enemies of the United States.

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