Twitter can get dangerous

2009/12/31

Published in “Die Zeit” on December 31 2009
Source (German): http://www.zeit.de/digital/internet/2009-12/iran-proteste-twitter?page=all

by Tina Klopp

Cellphones and cameras are always present: Opposition leader Moussavi at a rally in Tehran (picture: epa Saber/dpa)

The short message service Twitter has helped the insurgents in Iran. However, the government has long caught up and has started to pursue activists by turning their means against them.

When the Italian edition of the magazine Wired tried to put the internet on the list of proposals for the Nobel Peace Price, one prominent proof for its political power emerged: The twitter revolution in Iran. What they had in mind was the role that the net, and especially the message service Twitter, played in the protests following the presidential election in Iran. The American Time Magazine even called Twitter the media of the movement. And the twitter revolution received a “Webby Award” for being one of the “Top 10 internet momentums of the past decade”.

However, as it is so often the case, this development has its dark sides as well, not only because the Iranian government soon began to increase its control over the internet, sometimes even slowing it down to an extent that made any proper usage impossible. No, they even started using the techniques of the activists in order to identify and pursue them.

For example, the government has meanwhile started to use a technique called deep packet inspection, allowing them to automatically search for key words in the current data traffic. This writes Will Heaven in the British Telegraph. Neither the sender, nor the receiver notice that someone has secretly monitored their messages, he says.

Deep packet inspection is normally used by Western internet services to analyze their data flow in order to, for example, identify users of file sharing services and purposefully slow down those data flows. In this way, authors of regime-critical contents in Iran could be identified and tracked down via their IP adress. In that case, the security forces could easily seize all evidence from the computers and arrest the regime opponents.

“Those outside Iran cannot always absolve themselves of responsibility”, writes Heaven. “If you’re an internet user in Britain who communicates with an Iranian protester online, or encourages them to send anti-regime messages over the internet, you could be putting their life in danger”, he warns. *)
*) Translator’s note: Quotes of Will Heaven are taken from his article in The Telegraph

Heaven refers to the many hundreds that were killed since the beginning of the protests. Many of those who have meanwhile been released were abused and raped in the notorious prisons in Iran. The Austrian expert on Iran, Walter Posch, said in an interview that he has severed all connections with Iran because he is known as a security politician. In order to not endanger his contact persons, he now communicates only through intermediaries.

On entering the key word “iranelection” on Twitter, the number of updates sometimes increases by the hundreds. But how many of the activists are really in Iran? Where, for example, is TehranBureau, last time reporting on the unrest on December 27? One can only hope that it will soon reappear.

Will Heaven believes that the majority of the social media enthusiasts is sitting in safe Western living rooms. They should stop fancying that they can change the world by punching the keys of a new online tool with their “fat fingers”.

Michael Pohly, however, an Iran expert at the Free University of Berlin, in response to an e-mail inquiry states: “the Iranian people use every technical means to spread information to the outside world”. Exposed persons are monitored, however, they face imprisonment and torture, because this [probably referring to dissident activity. Translator’s note] is often put on one level with treason. The Iranians, however, do find technical ways and possibilities to spread information and send it abroad. “You will excuse me for not going into detail about the ways and methods they use to again and again slip through the nets of control established by the authorities.”, Pohl writes.

Some very active twitter accounts are IranRiggedElect, iran88, and manic77, to only name a few of the services that publish news (also) in English. For example, currently an excerpt from a hacked police radio conversation of December 27 is circulated which can certainly be seen as an encouragement to all protesters: Security forces seem to be in serious trouble handling the problems. Some policemen did not even want to leave the police station, fearing the station could be taken over in case too many policemen leave to take action against the protesters.

Austin Heap, a web expert from San Francisco, provides technical support to Iranian dissidents. He also reports to CNN that the Iranian government has meanwhile become much more efficient in confronting the protesters on the net. Heap, however, provides them with secure proxy connections that allow them to continue publishing their contents without being identified.

The Haystack project, another project of support, has the explicit task to help Iranians circumvent censorship. Also anonymizing techniques such as Tor can help senders of dissident messages to disguise their identity.

Again and again, technical safety advice is being circulated on Twitter. For example, many websites of the opponents of the regime are brought down through so-called “cross-site scripting”, or the hint that Firefox is currently the most secure browser, “especially with the add-on NoScript”. Currently, there is an urgent call to not click on links, because this could trigger a massive e-mail attack. “Make sure to type the link, do not click on it!”

Because independent media can no longer operate in Iran, courageous amateur film makers have taken over the visual coverage as well – by cell phone cameras. In case they get caught, they face several years in prison. On the pages of the Foreign Office it says that tourists are strongly recommended to avoid all political rallies, crowds, and demonstrations, and to refrain from filming or sound recordings – even with cell phones. The same applies to SMS and phone calls. However, to confiscate all cell phones from all Iranians would be too much even for the Iranian security forces, reports an Iranian exile.

Perhaps the protests meanwhile have reached a critical mass, which would significantly reduce the risk for each individual activist. The more people feel they are not alone in their struggle against the regime, the better it is for everyone – because the Internet can certainly help mobilizing. Moreover, the search for “exposed” leaders stagnates if a movement is essentially independent of a single organizer.

Other expat Iranians, however, say that friends stick to traditional ways of organizing themselves, for example, by periodically meeting in markets or other public places. The internet only plays a subordinate role.

What the net can really do, however, is to increase awareness about what is going on in Iran. This is not even questioned by Telegraph author Heaven, despite all his scorn for the twitterers with their “fat fingers”. One should just not cherish the illusion that sending a couple of tweets from secure Western living rooms can really help the courageous fighters in Iran – on the contrary, sometimes this can even have opposite effects.

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