Chris Good wrote an excellent article on internet surveillance in Iran. It isn’t as easy as you might think. Even though all network devices have the capability to monitor internet traffic, it can often be very difficult to track down an individual.
And, more broadly, how does Internet surveillance work? How can the government restrict, monitor, or find you if you’re doing something illegal/subversive?
As for the broader set of questions, Internet monitoring is done at multiple levels. Routers in homes have software that can restrict and track traffic–for consumers to use, for instance, to keep their kids from visiting websites and chat rooms deemed inappropriate. They also have software that lets users track when computers attempt to access those sites–monitoring, as opposed to blocking them.
That level of monitoring and restriction exists in most network systems, big and small–college dormitories, offices, Internet service providers (the companies you get your Internet from), and, in Iran’s case especially, the government.
So, in the U.S., Iran, and everywhere in the world, data on emails, websites visited, Instant Messenger conversations, tweets, YouTube uploads, blog posts, comments on blogs–and, outside the Internet, data on cell phone conversations, texts, video and picture messages–it’s all available. The government can find it, down to the IP address–the address of your specific computer or router–associated with Internet activity like comments on blogs, emails, etc.
In Iran, monitoring software (it is thought) allows government officials to look at a website or tweet and see the IP address it came from. All Internet traffic in and out of Iran travels through one portal–the Telecommunications Company of Iran (TCI)–though there are several service providers (ISPs) that operate below it. This makes it easier for Iran’s government to monitor traffic.
But if the Iranian government can get the IP addresses of people engaging in certain kinds of activity online, why haven’t we heard of the government knocking on people’s doors and arresting them for subversive YouTube videos, emails, and tweets?
The simple answer is that the Iranian government cannot easily tell the difference between a shared internet connection and individual connections. A college dormitory could be full of hundreds of students. Which one of them just uploaded that incendiary Youtube video? They also make use of advanced technologies such as proxy servers and encryption. The government must crack the encryption used in these connections before they can read the content.
One of those means is encryption–programs and services that mask the content of Internet activity. Monitoring people who use encryption, one can tell that they’re sending an email, for instance, but it’s unclear what’s in the email.
Two popular encryption services are Psiphon and Tor, specializing in delivering multimedia content (like videos recorded on cell phones and uploaded to YouTube) and browsing/IM/email anonymity, respectively.
Iran blocks sites, such as YouTube, that are deemed controversial. To get around that, Iranians have used proxy sites–dummy sites with different addresses that, in effect, take browsers to YouTube. There’s a strong chance that work is being done by the tech-savvy Iranian diaspora, Rohozinsky said, “Iranians outside Iran who have the savvy to create such a proxy and email family and friends back in Iran and say, ‘Here, use my proxy.’”
Iranian browsers get out past the government’s choke-hold on traffic by requesting the fake address; then, they upload videos to YouTube.
In other words, it’s not as if the government can track all Iranian traffic to YouTube: because it already blocks that traffic, Iranians are already obscuring their use of the site.
The only really effective way is to block all access to the internet for everyone. That has its own set of risks however. What happens to a country with no internet access? While the government is trying its best to shut down this form of communication, it simply can’t. There are simply too many lanes in the information superhighway to block them all.