Ira­ni­ans used Navy tech to beat web cen­sors

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY ELI LAKE

Ira­ni­ans seek­ing to share videos and other eye­wit­ness ac­counts of the demon­stra­tions that have roiled their coun­try since dis­puted elec­tions three weeks ago are us­ing an In­ter­net en­cryp­tion pro­gram orig­i­nally de­vel­oped by and for the U.S. Navy.

De­signed a decade ago to se­cure In­ter­net com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­tween U.S. ships at sea, The Onion Router, or TOR, has be­come one of the most im­por­tant prox­ies in Iran for gain­ing ac­cess to Web sites such as Twit­ter, YouTube and Face­book.

The sys­tem of proxy servers that dis­guise a user’s In­ter­net traf­fic is now op­er­ated by a non­profit, the Tor Project, that is in­de­pen­dent from the U.S. gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary and is used all over the world.

Ac­cord­ing to the Tor Project, con­nec­tions to TOR have gone up by 600 per­cent since mass protests erupted af­ter the June 12 vote, which gave a pur­ported land­slide victory to in­cum­bent Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad.

“Over the past two weeks we have seen a dou­bling to tripling of new client con­nec­tions,” An­drew Lew­man, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Tor Project, told The Wash­ing­ton Times on June 25. “We are up to a thou­sand new clients a day.”

Tehran was rel­a­tively quiet on June 25, but op­po­si­tion leader Mir Hos­sein Mousavi vowed not to back down and Ira­ni­ans found novel ways to con­tinue their protests com­bin­ing high and low tech­nol­ogy.

An Ira­nian who asked not to be named to avoid gov­ern­ment ret­ri­bu­tion told The Times that Ira­ni­ans are writ­ing protest slo­gans on their pa­per money. Mass e-mails have been sent out telling peo­ple ap­proached by the au­thor­i­ties to say they got the money from some­one else, he said.

Among the slo­gans the Ira­nian saw scrawled over the im­age of Ay­a­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini, the leader of the 1979 Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion: “What hap­pened to our vote, dic­ta­tor?” “Death to the coup d’etat guard.” “Supreme leader equals Shah.” “The gov­ern­ment cheats, the supreme leader ap­proves.”

Iran, a coun­try of 70 mil­lion peo­ple, has more than 20 mil­lion In­ter­net users — the high­est per­cent­age in the re­gion out­side Is­rael — and a well-de­vel­oped bl­o­go­sphere.

For Ira­nian In­ter­net users, TOR al­lows them to visit gov­ern­ment-banned Web sites and avoid de­tec­tion by the au­thor­i­ties. The Tor Project does this by rout­ing Web re­quests among sev­eral dif­fer­ent com­puter servers all over the world. While there are other proxy servers that “anonymize” Web surf­ing, TOR is con­sid­ered the best prod­uct avail­able on the In­ter­net.

“There are plenty of pro­grams po­lit­i­cal dis­si­dents can use to route their In­ter­net traf­fic through third par­ties and es­cape cen­sor­ship and avoid mon­i­tor­ing,” said Noah Shacht­man, the ed­i­tor of’s na­tional se­cu­rity blog, Dan­ger Room. “But TOR is dif­fer­ent be­cause it is an en­crypted net­work of node af­ter node, each one un­lock­ing en­cryp­tion to the next node. And be­cause of this, it is all but im­pos­si­ble for gov­ern­ments to track Web sites a TOR user is vis­it­ing. TOR is a great way to give Ah­madine­jad’s Web cen­sors headaches.”

Since the mass demon­stra­tions be­gan, the Ira­nian gov­ern­ment has tried to den­i­grate the protests as be­ing in­sti­gated by the CIA and other for­eign in­tel­li­gence agen­cies — a charge that Pres­i­dent Obama and other for­eign leaders have re­peat­edly de­nied.

While U.S. of­fi­cials and Iran spe­cial­ists say that the demon­stra­tions are home­grown and re­flect pent-up Ira­nian frus­tra­tion with the lack of lib­erty in their coun­try, the U.S. gov­ern­ment has in the past in­vested in com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy to help Ira­ni­ans or­ga­nize and im­prove their ac­cess to the West.

In 2007, the State Depart­ment spent $31 mil­lion to pro­mote democ­racy in Iran. An­other $60 mil­lion was ap­pro­pri­ated for the pro­gram in 2008 but much of it has not yet been spent, for­mer State Depart­ment of­fi­cials say.

Some Iran spe­cial­ists have crit­i­cized the pro­gram, not­ing that it was used by the Ira­nian gov­ern­ment to taint re­cip­i­ents as agents of the West.

David Denehy, the Iran democ­racy pro­gram co­ordi- na­tor for the State Depart­ment from 2005 to 2007, said, “Our goal was to pro­mote free­dom of speech for Ira­ni­ans to com­mu­ni­cate with each other and the out­side world. We funded and sup­ported in­no­va­tive tech­nolo­gies to al­low them to do this via the In­ter­net, cell phones and other me­dia.”

Mr. Denehy added, how­ever, that Iran’s democ­racy move­ment is be­ing di­rected by Ira­ni­ans.

“What we are wit­ness­ing now is the Ira­nian peo­ple uti­liz­ing th­ese new tech­nolo­gies and that is on their own ac­cord,” he said. “They have done it them­selves. I hope the projects we funded have been help­ful to them, but this is an Ira­nian-led move­ment.”

An­other agency in the U.S. gov­ern­ment that has pro­vided seed money to help Ira­ni­ans avoid In­ter­net cen­sor­ship is the Broad­cast­ing Board of Gov­er­nors (BBG), the body that over­sees the Voice of Amer­ica (VOA) and Ra­dio Farda, a Farsi-lan­guage ra­dio sta­tion that stepped up short­wave broad­casts re­cently to coun­ter­act Ira­nian gov­ern­ment ef­forts to jam the sig­nal.

Ken Berman, act­ing di­rec­tor of en­gi­neer­ing for the BBG, said he over­sees a three-per­son anti-cen­sor­ship team that fo­cuses on China and Iran. He de­clined to pro­vide the ex­act bud­get for the project, say­ing only that it was “un­der $5 mil­lion” a year.

“We have re­al­ized that Iran has a grow­ing au­di­ence of young ac­tivist In­ter­net users and we have re­pur­posed our tools to work in Farsi and make it avail­able to Ira­ni­ans,” he said. “We open up the chan­nels so the Ira­nian bl­o­go­sphere is more ac­ces­si­ble to Ira­ni­ans in Iran.”

Mr. Berman said that one project his group funded was to de­sign the Fire­fox Web browser to em­bed the TOR proxy sys­tem.

The anti-cen­sor­ship op­er­a­tion has also ben­e­fited VOA, whose “traf­fic has gone up ex­po­nen­tially” since the un­rest be­gan in Iran, he said.

Mr. Berman said that this is not U.S. “med­dling” in Ira­nian af­fairs.

“All we are do­ing is pro­vid­ing an open chan­nel so Ira­ni­ans can get in­for­ma­tion com­ing in and out,” he said.

Suad Ja­farzadeh con­trib­uted to this re­port.

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