Iran repression: the other side of the technology story

The news has been full this week with stories of what is going on in Iran, and more specifically with how technology is helping protesters get their message out. Without Twitter and its ilk, the story goes, no one would know what was really happening under the boot of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Unfortunately, the protesters are not the only ones benefitting from technology. Iran’s oppressive government, with help from Nokia and Siemens, has implemented a subversion scanning system currently deep-inspecting nearly every piece of data flowing in and out of the country. Apparently this includes virtually all phone calls. Better yet, they are now using crowdsourcing techniques to help put names and addresses to photos of protesters. Protesters who will undoubtedly be “disappeared” once identified.

Those folks in Iran using Twitter to let us know about what is happening there are taking their lives into their own hands, thanks to technology sold, implemented, and serviced by suppliers from supposedly enlightened democratic nations. If I was one of the employees from Nokia or Siemens responsible for their wonderful new spy system, I would be asking my bosses some pretty pointed questions right at the moment. Right before I put in my resignation.

3 thoughts on “Iran repression: the other side of the technology story”

  1. We all like to think we’d resign, but would we really? You are some guy with a big mortgage, a kid or two, if american maybe with a minor ailment that would still bankrupt you without a company healthcare plan, and in the worst job market for decades.

    And I’m sure when the technology was being developed, and the locals trained in it’s use the usual rationalizations were applied: “better that they have monitored communications than no cell phones at all – the good will outweigh the bad.”,”if we don’t sell it to them someone else will.”,”yes, it might be misused,but this technology will let us stop another 911 or worse, and catch the really bad people.” And now it’s implemented and being used what do you do? Stop maintaining the network? Who would that hurt more? The protesters or the government?

    Not the clearest of questions, especially if you are staring unemployment in the face.

    And look at your own comments on my blog:
    “Strangely, I don’t care a great deal about what is happening in Iran. I think it is because even the “moderates” believe in a rigidly defined system that locks women in the home and considers adultry worthy of capital punishment. If it was a majority very progressive culture being oppressed by a minority, I might feel differently, but that really doesn’t seem to be the case.

    I hope that the people there get the representation they want, but frankly… I sort of feel about the same about Iran’s current problems as I do about the perpetually developing Idiocracy south of the border. The majority of Iran’s population really does seem to want religious rule according to a strict and, to my thinking, extremely backwards set of rules. If that’s what they want, well, I’m sad to see that, but it’s their *majority* choice.”

    The sad truth is that we, as a society, seldom reward people for doing the right thing. Not really. Part of that is the capitalist system which is amoral – good or bad doesn’t matter as long as you make money, and part of that is that we humans still have tribal brains – unless it affects us or those we know directly it’s hard to get worked up about it.

    It would be nice if the guys working for Nokia / siemens et all resigned rather than do work to support repressive regimes, but there are very understandable reasons why they probably won’t. And unless we do things to change that, to make doing the right thing supported, encouraged and economically survivable, then sadly we can’t really expect them to.

  2. You are, of course, right Chris. I wouldn’t really know how I would react in that situation. I’d like to think I would do something more than just fly off to Iran to work on their “communications intelligence” system, but I probably would just do my job and take my cheque. And hate myself just a little bit more.

    However, that doesn’t change the fact that corporations should take some kind of look at the regimes they sell to, and how their products are used. Naturally, it won’t be a particularly hard look: but if it is a small drop in the revenue ocean, the opportunity exists to earn some global good will by saying “No, we don’t serve governments that oppress their populations.”

    And of course, if it is a significant part of their revenue, the realities of the stock market will demand that companies serve even the most violently genocidal dictators unless their home government explicitly forbids such trade. But if enough individual employees raise issues with assignments to that country, the company might just have to listen. Most big companies do listen at least a little bit to what their employees say, and sometimes a difference can be made.

  3. One thing is that while people can “force” you to do something, they can’t make you like it. Oh they will want to … I can’t begin to tell you how much stuff we get at work about “proper attitude” and how incensed the Powers That Be get when you don’t thank them for screwing you over. And how “hurt” they are that morale is low (duh … low morale is a reflection on your job, not ours!)

    But while they can command obedience in return for a paycheck they cannot buy true respect.

    And sometimes, the scorn and contempt of those around you, even if you are civil in the workplace can have an effect.

    We may not be brave/involved enough to withhold consent – but we certainly can withhold our blessing. And as long as there is any humanity left in the system that will make some difference.

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