Monday, February 15, 2010

The Iranian Regime Takes Fight to Opposition Online

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Times Online /

Iran’s clerical rulers, who succeeded in suppressing widespread demonstrations last week by blanketing Tehran with security, are escalating a cyberwar to combat the increasingly powerful role of the internet in mobilising their opponents. Visitors to the website of the main challenger in last June’s disputed presidential election were greeted by an image of the Iranian flag and an AK-47 assault rifle. “Stop being agents for those who are safely in the US and are using you,” they were told. Another prominent opposition site was sabotaged, the internet was slowed down and threats were made to close Google’s Gmail system and set up Iran’s own national email service, a move that would allow government surveillance of the net. A group calling itself the Iran Cyber Army has claimed responsibility for hacking into both opposition sites. This is the outfit that brought down Twitter for several hours last December when huge antigovernment protests were shaking the regime. In a controlled society with extreme censorship, where satellite television channels have already been blocked, opposition supporters have grown adept at harnessing new media such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to communicate and spread images of demonstrations and unrest. These sites have become the new battleground in a no-holds-barred cyberwar.

While the government seeks to impose an information blockade by shutting down outlets perceived as supporting the opposition, overseas hackers are busy sabotaging government networks. Some 30m Iranians are believed to have access to the internet. A few months ago it was about 20m. The increase shows the hunger for information. Although there is no admitted link with the regime to prove the Iran Cyber Army is an official group, the type of site brought down and the language used suggest it is connected to the government. The opposition suspects it is a subsidiary of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, the force that has played the key role in suppressing dissent. “We do not know for sure but we all assume it is an offshoot of the guard, which has its own cybercrime unit,” one Tehran source said last week. With so many opposition figures jailed, all independent newspapers closed and many journalists arrested, the internet is fulfilling the role of newspapers. Iran is holding 62 journalists in prison; three more were arrested last week. It has hanged two men in public for alleged anti-government activities and sentenced nine more to death. The crackdown has left the opposition in permanent fear of arrest. Thursday’s failure to mount any significant protest while the government filled a huge square with cheering supporters has dented their morale. (Read more...)