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The US government is surveilling Americans on the internet and building anti-surveillance technology for Iranians

In this June 9, 2009 file picture, a supporter of main challenger and reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, standing next to a poster of him, whistles as she films the event with her mobile phone, amidst a festive atmosphere at an election rally at the Heidarnia stadium in Tehran, Iran. An opposition activist spreads word of an upcoming protest in the streets of Tehran. Another posts pictures of clashes between demonstrators and police. As Iran's government cracks down on traditional media after the country's disputed presidential election, tech-savvy Iranians have turned to the microblogging site Twitter.
AP Photo/Ben Curtis
But who’s watching the watchmen watching the watchmen?
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The latest revelations about the breadth of the US government’s intelligence dragnet, an apparent effort to monitor a broad range of domestic internet and phone communication in search of foreign terrorists, is a reminder that when it comes to surveillance, the land of the free is more like Syria or Iran than we might think.

But don’t worry! Even as the National Security Agency monitors US internet activity, the State Department has been financing technology that will allow people to set up their own networks—the old “internet in a suitcase“—to get around monitoring by governments like Iran’s.

Iran holds a presidential election on June 14. When the last election in 2009 sparked protests both on the streets and online, the government reacted by blocking access to Twitter and Facebook, beefing up online surveillance, and starting work on an Iranian intranet to allow it central control over access to the world wide web.

Last week, the US announced that it would lift sanctions on certain hardware and software, including anti-tracking programs and virtual private networks that Iranians could use to circumvent the Ayatollah’s watchful eye. It also introduced new sanctions on individuals and companies, like Ofogh Saberin, that censor Iranian internet access.

To add a third layer of irony, the equipment Iran is using to build its surveillance and censorship apparatus is likely American. A Reuters investigation found that Iran’s government-controlled telecommunications firm bought US-made surveillance equipment from a Chinese company as part of a $130.6 million deal, to dodge international sanctions. The goods came from companies that included Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco, Symantec and HP.

The differences between the Iranian and US approaches to internet control are still large. Iran blocks entire services and censors expression, while installing extensive monitoring software without apparent legal fetters. The US government hasn’t attempted censorship, and its monitoring is subject to laws, congressional oversight, and judicial approval. However, those legal restraints are turning out to be a lot more permissive than anyone had thought.

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