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Data privacy and censorship concerns are driving Iranian companies and individuals to foreign Internet servers because domestic providers are powerless to protect their customers against state spying and control.

“Company executives have told me in private that they prefer to have their servers managed abroad because if they are filtered they won’t lose their foreign customers,” said Communications and Information Technology Minister Mahmoud Vaezi at a technology conference in Tehran on March 8, 2016.

“Since 2015, all Iranian application developers must sign a contract that is sent to their address and provide identification documents. That means the complete annihilation of personal privacy. By contrast, international companies such as Google or Apple do not require any of this. If you want to offer an app, all you need to do is open an account and pay a membership fee,” an Iranian web provider told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

Iranian Internet service providers are particularly handicapped by strict censorship and “security” laws that expose their customers’ information and online activities.

“Since a few years ago, web hosting companies have been forced to cooperate with Internet monitoring agencies and as a result they can order the removal of any content,” said the web provider, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A sample email sent by the Working Group to Determine Instances of Criminal Content on the Internet (Iran’s principal online filtering body) to a web hosting company

A sample email sent by the Working Group to Determine Instances of Criminal Content on the Internet (Iran’s principal online filtering body) to a web hosting company

Deleting information from a website requires web hosting companies to violate privacy agreements so that state agencies can access the server’s information bank. Internet providers are thus unable to protect customer data.

While President Hassan Rouhani has repeatedly said Iran should embrace the Internet rather than view it as a threat, his government has done little to improve or protect online freedom, and authorities continue to develop means to covertly access and monitor online accounts.

“I think President Rouhani’s government may appear to be against filtering, but the security atmosphere online has gotten worse and the authorities have access to a lot more information about people online,” the web provider told the Campaign.

Online security Iran is of critical importance; many individuals have been arrested, prosecuted and convicted for online activities disapproved of by state authorities, and are serving lengthy prison sentences under catchall national security charges.