Iranian Government Uses New Technology to Monitor Information about Political Turmoil

I don't have to tell you much about how important social networks have been in getting photos, videos and just plain information out of Iran throughout the last week.

But technology may also be working against Twitterers and YouTubers. 

One reason why Iran is allowing all of the information to keep flowing may have to do with the fact that the government could be collecting information about the senders. Additionally, the infiltration of Iranian online traffic could explain why the Internet there has been slow. Another explanation may be that Iran is analyzing the data as it moves through a "choke point."

"Deep packet inspection" is a practice that Iranian inspectors appear to be using to analyze data being sent from Iran and to find out who's sending it. The Wall Street Journal said Siemens and Nokia helped install the technology in Iran.

For background, understand that information flows online in packets. When you log on to a Web page, the page arrives in packets. E-mails you send leave as a series of packets. HowStuffWorks explained:

"Each packet carries the information that will help it get to its destination -- the sender's IP address, the intended receiver's IP address, something that tells the network how many packets this e-mail message has been broken into and the number of this particular packet. The packets carry the data in the protocols that the Internet uses: Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP). Each packet contains part of the body of your message. A typical packet contains perhaps 1,000 or 1,500 bytes."

The Wall Street Journal reported:

"Deep packet inspection involves inserting equipment into a flow of online data, from e-mails and Internet phone calls to images and messages on social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Every digitized packet of online data is deconstructed, examined for keywords and reconstructed within milliseconds. In Iran's case, this is done for the entire country at a single choke point, according to networking engineers familiar with the country's system. It couldn't be determined whether the equipment from Nokia Siemens Networks is used specifically for deep packet inspection.

"All eyes have been on the Internet amid the crisis in Iran, and government attempts to crack down on information. The infiltration of Iranian online traffic could explain why the government has allowed the Internet to continue to function -- and also why it has been running at such slow speeds in the days since the results of the presidential vote spurred unrest.

"Users in the country report the Internet having slowed to less than a tenth of normal speeds. Deep packet inspection delays the transmission of online data unless it is offset by a huge increase in processing power, according to Internet experts."

As the Journal pointed out, it is possible to inspect packets because Iran "can track all online communication through a single location called the Telecommunication Infrastructure Co., part of the government's telecom monopoly."

The OpenNet Initiative (ONI), which publishes studies on countries around the globe that block, filter or monitor Internet activities, said these new technologies are popping up around the world, especially in Asian countries. Click here to see a map of where filtering is most common.

ONI has additional information about Iran's restrictive Web policies and online traffic patterns in that country. Also, check out this interactive map that lets you visualize how Iranians are using blogs this month.

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University says a large percentage of Iranian Internet traffic is non-political but focused instead on such things as poetry and religious study.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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