Iran Reacts to the Latest Snowden Leak on SIM Card Hacks

Twitter user @AmirMehrabian posted this photo promoting Free Software, and opposing American Products and the NSA on the February 11, 2014 anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Twitter user @AmirMehrabian posted this photo promoting Free Software, and opposing American Products and the NSA on the February 11, 2014 anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

The Iranian Minister of Information and Communication Technologies, Mahmoud Vaezi, has been assuring Iranians that his ministry is investigating the SIM cards of its mobile carriers to make sure they are not susceptible to American and British hacks. This is in reaction to this month's report by The Intercept on documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealing that American and British spies were hacking the internal computers of the largest manufacturer of SIM cards, Gemalto

The report further indicated that Iran was amongst one of the countries targeted for data retrieval earlier on in their operations in 2010. The emails of employees of Iran's second largest mobile phone carrier MTN Irancell were regularly targeted by the GCHQ operations. The government hacks searched for technical terms in the Irancell emails that could allow for further mining into those individuals accounts leading to the companies broader accounts. The Intercept explained: 

In its key harvesting “trial” operations in the first quarter of 2010, GCHQ successfully intercepted keys used by wireless network providers in Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, India, Serbia, Iceland and Tajikistan…..GCHQ harvested the emails of employees of hardware companies that manufacture phones, such as Ericsson and Nokia; operators of mobile networks, such as MTN Irancell and Belgacom; SIM card providers, such as Bluefish and Gemalto; and employees of targeted companies who used email providers, such as Yahoo and Google. During the three-month trial, the largest number of email addresses harvested were those belonging to Huawei employees, followed by MTN Irancell.

This GCHQ internal document reveals that Iran's mobile carrier Irancell was targetted for data retrieval in 2010.

This GCHQ internal document reveals that Iran's second largest mobile carrier Irancell was targeted for data retrieval in 2010. Photo taken from The Intercept.

In an initial response to the recent revelations, Vaezi told Iran's semi-official Fars News Agency on February 25 that he urges all state employees and ordinary Iranians to use their mobile phones when necessary, and to rely on their landlines for most communications.  The minister also made a point of reminding Iranians that these kinds of interceptions by the Americans are ordinary occurrences in “this day and age,” alluding to the current security and privacy concerns in the wake of the Snowden revelations. Vaezi further elaborated:

We were even witness to the news that the German Chancellor's mobile was subject to American surveillance. It is within this context that we have been made aware of another important issue, that next to operators all over the world, Iranian cell phone operators have been subject to SIM card hacks.

The minister assured Iranians that as long as these threats to national security involve the scope of his ministry, there will always be a budget for it. He explained that within the past six months a budget of 200 billion Toman (about 60 million USD) had already been set aside to assure Iranian communications technologies were secure from foreign interception. 

Iran has also been working on implementing a number of local Internet platforms for social media, email and search engines in efforts to nationalize Iran's Internet. While it remains unclear whether a national Internet is an effort to eventually close off Iranians from the world wide web, recent promotion and launch of national search engines such as highlight these efforts. Iran has taken the experience of the Snowden revelations, and this involvement of Iran's mobile operators, to further strengthen their argument towards a national Internet.

Vaezi emphasized that in light of the SIM card hacks, Iranians should “use local mobile social media platforms as much as they can, since the hosting of these platforms occur within the country. These precautions however are futile in the face of foreign hacking of foreign made hardware such as SIM cards, and Iran's central communications operations. 

Also not included as part of the national response to NSA hacks are Iran's own communications surveillance efforts, and especially those targeted at their own citizens. The ubiquitous nature of state surveillance practices against its own citizens have even become part of mainstream media, particularly following the revelation in July 2013 when a member of parliament Ali Motahari's office was subject to wiretapping. Similarly, Abbas Salehi, the current Vice Minister of Culture to the Hassan Rouhani administration and the Head of Iran’s Atomic Agency, wrote in Khorasan newspaper that “surveillance is so widespread in society that landlines and cell phones, alongside mailboxes, have no privacy…when attending meetings, are holding important conversations, cell phones are usually turned off or set aside.”

This was a point alluded to on the Day We Fight Back in 2014, when we called on the US government, alongside all other governments around to world, to bring transparency and accountability to their intelligence operations in the wake of the Snowden revelations. However, the intelligence operations of both the United States and Iran can be contextualized in the increasing Cyberwarfare in which both countries are entangled.

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