Iran Uses Tech Tools To Censor Dissent In Iran, protesters are using social-networking sites to contest the presidential election. But every e-mail, video and tweet that makes it out of Iran likely has passed through a new system the government put in place to filter dissent. Christopher Rhoads of The Wall Street Journal discusses how Iran got this capability and how it works.
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Iran Uses Tech Tools To Censor Dissent

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Iran Uses Tech Tools To Censor Dissent

Iran Uses Tech Tools To Censor Dissent

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


I'm Melissa Block.

And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Today we're going to break from our usual consumer focus to report on the unprecedented tech story unfolding in Iran right now. You've likely heard about dissidence there using social networking sites, including Twitter and Facebook to protest the recent presidential election.

Well, today, a report in The Wall Street Journal describes how the Iranian government is using technology to filter and censor that dissent. Technology reporter Christopher Rhoads co-authored the story. He joins us now. And, Chris, why don't you talk about what you're describing in this article - you call it deep packet inspection. What does that mean?

Mr. CHRISTOPHER RHOADS (Technology Reporter, The Wall Street Journal): Yes, it sounds very nefarious and in some governments' hands it can be. It essentially relates to the ability to insert equipment into the flow of online data. And by that we just mean emails, and Twitter messages and the like. And it allows the user of that equipment to go into each bit of data - commonly called a digitized packet - and look inside it. In some cases, just look for key words like democracy or protest and decide then what it wants to do it, either block it or continue to let it flow, but monitor it or even alter it for disinformation purposes.

BLOCK: That last point is intriguing that they might actually change the information for disinformation purposes. Are there signs that that is actually going on right now in Iran?

Mr. RHOADS: It's hard to say if those kinds of things relating to deep packing inspection are going on. What people have noticed is people getting on Twitter and essentially can try to confuse people. For example, if a meeting for a particular march or protest was set for a certain day, someone might get on there and say, oh, actually, it's been rescheduled and it's going to be at this location at this time. And it turns out that information was false. So, we are seeing examples of that.

BLOCK: A key point of this story, Chris, is that you report that Iran got much of its monitoring technology from western companies.

Mr. RHOADS: That's right. We were able to confirm that a joint venture of Nokia, the Finnish cell phone maker and Siemens, the German conglomerate, that they sold some of this monitoring equipment to Iran some time toward the end of last year.

BLOCK: And what did the companies tell you about that?

Mr. RHOADS: Well, they're now back-pedaling a little bit, in the sense of trying to say what they do and don't do. It's clear that their equipment, which they call in their brochure materials a monitoring center, it's clear that it enables these kinds of capabilities. Well, they also point out that this kind of capability is increasingly standard these days in terms of when you sell a company or a country networking gear. This kind of technology is now becoming a standard part of that.

BLOCK: So they're saying the upside is that we're allowing them to have mobile communications, wireless service - this is part of the package.

Mr. RHOADS: That's right.

BLOCK: If Iran is doing this deep packet inspection that you write about today, how is it that so many tweets and emails are still coming through from Iran?

Mr. RHOADS: It's a good question. It's - there definitely is still communication happening and it seems to be a very fluid situation. I mean, one theory is why did Iran not just simply turn off the Internet? And the theory is, and the speculation is that with this technology that we're describing here, they can really monitor and get information, essentially, counterintelligence - if that's the right word there - on these people. So, it benefits them, in a sense, in their attempt to contain this turmoil.

BLOCK: Christopher Rhoads covers technology for The Wall Street Journal. Chris, thanks very much.

Mr. RHOADS: Thank you.

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