Nokia Siemens in Iran: Shame or all’s fair game for telcos?

Deep packet inspection is bad under any regime, no matter how benevolent. When a regime such as Iran today gets access to technology with the potential of DPI, you have a justifiable uproar on far more serious and urgent implications than delayed music downloads.

Global media over the past week pointed to Nokia and Siemens as having provided the Iranian regime with technology to detect and filter information they found inconvenient. According to a widely republished and quoted Wall Street Journal article on 22 June that the newspaper stands by, a system installed in Iran by Nokia Siemens Networks provides Iranian authorities with the ability to conduct deep-packet inspection of online communications to monitor the contents and track the source of e-mail, VoIP calls, and posts to social networking sites such as Twitter, MySpace and Facebook. As quoted by Wired, the newspaper also said authorities had the ability to alter content as it intercepted the traffic from a state-owned internet choke point.

Commenting on the story was Ben Roome, a spokesperson for Nokia Siemens Networks who noted in a blog post that,

I do want to say to the people commenting here if we’re (I’m) aware of the situation in Iran. We are (and I am), and it is mainly because of mobile phone video, photos and calls from across Iran, communicating events first hand as they happen, that we are so aware. As I said above: we had a choice as to whether we bring the Iranian people this mobile connectivity, in the knowledge that telecoms networks in Iran are required to have the ability to monitor voice calls as they do all over the world. We made that choice and believe there is a net benefit to the people of Iran.

The point made is that the world is angry about Iran, and sees horrific videos such as the murder of Neda Soltani, because of the ICT networks and foundations facilitated by Nokia Siemens Networks. The over one hundred comments to date on Ben’s blog post reveal the frustration and anger of people who point to the culpability of Nokia Siemens Networks in the violence that has gripped Iran today.

I suggested to some colleagues this morning that one can look at this issue from the perspective of power and accountability. The power of these DPI systems in Iran pale into insignificance with the capacity of what, for example, the US and its allies can monitor and intercept domestically and globally. But there is, at worst, retroactive judicial oversight in the US even when the Executive runs amok combined with the enabling Freedom of Information legislation. What can and should business do when this accountability and oversight is not present, and yet government’s ask for powerful technologies that can be used to undermine human dignity and human security?

But let’s not kid ourselves – you don’t do any business with a regime like Iran expecting them to give a free reign to rights, dissent and democracy. Is that a reason to not do any business? Not. Is that a reason to be up front to consumers about the business one does? Perhaps. Is that a reason to brush away a moral responsibility for the death of Neda Soltani?

Definitely not.

6 thoughts on “Nokia Siemens in Iran: Shame or all’s fair game for telcos?

  1. I disagree with the main thrust of this post, in that Nokia-Siemens is somehow supposed to carry out an assessment of the regime prior to the sale of equipment. I doubt they are qualified to make such an assessment objectively. It was always up to legislative bodies to ban such sales if required. Given that Washington and Brussels have been wavering over their treatment of Iran for months if not years; I doubt such clear direction would have been forthcoming.

    The geopolitical argument aside: it is my view that your post (together with the reporting by mainstream media) fundamentally misunderstands the pervasiveness of the technology referred to as deep packet inspection. That Iran was sold hardware to facilitate such examination of packet traffic in no way detracts from the ability of any amateur (including myself) to use software based methods to accomplish the same ends. Yes, there are numerous open source tools that allow the same degree (or better) of examination (examples via email if you wish). Those require no sales, no dealings with business entities; beyond a certain (limited) degree of technical expertise in setting up. The only thing that hardware accomplishes is a speedup – hardware can always process packets much faster than software.

    Besides, there is a curious dichotomy in what you advocate in terms of moral responsibility. Supposing everyone united to prevent despotic regimes (and their inhabitants) from downloading or using software deemed sensitive. This is what the United States does routinely – export of strong cryptographic libraries is prohibited to some countries including Iran. This in turn would prevent citizens of said countries from using cryptographic measures in order to evade packet inspection and other related technologies because the export terms do not permit it.

    What isn’t good enough for the regime is surely not good enough for its citizens? Ask yourself if you’d enjoy the export restriction of cryptographic libraries to Sri Lanka as a comparable measure.

  2. I will never ever buy anything from Nokia or Siemens again. And I used to buy a lot, for me and for my company.
    By the way, I am not even Iranian.
    Shame on you Nokia & Siemens!

  3. From

    After MEPs critical – Nokia admits Iran “error”

    Barry French of phone company Nokia Siemens explained that they had provided Iran with lawful interception capability in mobile networks, but admitted the company committed an error providing active surveillance technology for monitoring centres.

    The company had faced criticism in a European Parliament resolution over this and the way it had been used by Tehran to intercept mobile telephone calls.

    In 2009 Nokia halted all work connected to monitoring centres and started reviewing policies. “We have a responsibility to help ensure that the communications technologies we provide are used to support, and not infringe, human rights” he told the hearing.

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