Iran better than China at Internet censorship – but dissidents stay ahead

Tor

The Iranian regime has more sophisticated Internet controls than the People’s Republic of China, which was believed to have set the world standard on Web censorship.

After the European telecom team Nokia-Siemens provided the Islamic Republic with a wireless electronic monitoring system, the regime has expanded its capabilities to defeat one of the best open-source encrypted communications services available: the online anonymizer produced by the nonprofit Tor Project.

“The crackdown targeted Tor, a free piece of software that allows anyone to connect to internet via a global private network that hides computer IP addresses, which could be used by authorities to identify and locate dissidents. It also encrypts the contents of users’ internet communications, making eavesdropping on emails, Facebook, Twitter and other applications more difficult,” London’s Daily Telegraph reports.

The regime was able to choke off Tor’s connections by January, prior to the widely anticipated major protests. However, other encrypted online communications, such as banking, functioned normally through the Iranian Ineternet service providers, meaning that the regime had been able to isolate Tor’s communications and shut them down in the country.

Many activists in Iran rely on Tor and similar services to reach the outside world for news, and to bring news and information from inside the country to the rest of the world. This crackdown helps account for why so little information about the protests since February 14 has become international news. We know that widespread protests are taking place because of the isolated packets of information, images and videos that make it out of the country.

“What they did was vastly upgrade their capability,” Tor Project Executive Director Andrew Lewman tells the Telegraph.

That capability is called Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), which the Telegraph describes as “a type of high-end network equipment that uses ultra-fast microchips to read and classify internet traffic in transit. The Iranian authorities used DPI to detect the highly specific parameters Tor uses to establish an encrypted connection.”

“From an engineering perspective this is fantastic,” Lewman says of the Iranian regime’s capabilities.

This shows a capacity that exceeds China’s, according to the Telegraph:

Whoever the supplier, the temporary block on Tor does show that Iran is now more advanced than even China and its Great Firewall in terms of the technology it uses to suppress dissent online, said Mr Lewman. The regime has rapidly caught up with its critics since the unrest following the 2009 election, when the number of Tor users rocketed from approximately 1,200 to 2,800 in a matter of days as many Iranians first began to use social networks to organise protests.

The Tor Project, which receives funding from the US government in part to promote Internet freedom around the world, has fought back, redesigning the software so its traffic can deceive DPI so that the encrypted Tor traffic looks like any other online connection. In recent weeks, Tor reports that its number of Iranian users has returned to normal levels.

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