Iran prepares internal Internet
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The Iranian government, determined to limit Western influence and defend itself against cyberattacks, appears to have laid the technical foundations for a national online network that would be detached from the Internet and permit tighter control over the flow of information.
The concept of a self-contained network has been reverberating within Iran for almost a decade and has often been treated with skepticism, given the significant investment in infrastructure and security that would be required. But Iranian officials and outside experts say development of the network has accelerated following cyberattacks aimed at the nation's nuclear program.
Last month, Iran's communications and information technology minister unveiled a plan to take key government agencies and military outfits offline and onto the new network by the end of September. U.S. security researchers say they are for the first time seeing evidence of an operational network consistent with Iran's publicly stated plans.
The researchers, working under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Global Communications Studies, say in a report to be released this week that they have found on the network functional versions of the sites of government ministries, universities and businesses. They also found evidence of an already-operational filtering capability.
At the network's core was high-end equipment manufactured by the Chinese firm Huawei capable of sophisticated online surveillance of traffic. The network is already "internally consistent and widely reachable," said the report, a copy of which was provided to The Washington Post.
The findings are likely to worry Internet freedom activists and the Obama administration, which has spent tens of millions of dollars on initiatives to ease Internet access in Iran and other countries with repressive governments. Officials had expressed concerns even before release of the latest research.
Experts say the Iranian government has a handful of reasons to establish a state-run Internet alternative. A protected Iran-only network could help officials counter U.S.-funded programs that allow Iranian activists to evade online surveillance. It could also help insulate Iranian computers from a covert cyberattack campaign that Iranian officials assert the United States and Israel continue to wage. The Iranian network is not expected to entirely replace the Internet.
First Published September 21, 2012 12:00 am