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Iran spying: Canadian firm’s axed 2019 deal raises questions about working with regime

Click to play video: 'Iran sentences 3 more protesters to death, expert warns regime ‘in trouble’'
Iran sentences 3 more protesters to death, expert warns regime ‘in trouble’
Iran's judiciary has sentenced three more anti-government protesters to death on charges of 'waging war on God,' its Mizan news agency reported on Monday, defying growing international criticism over its fierce crackdown on demonstrators. – Jan 10, 2023

A small Canadian telecom service firm is taking issue with a tech watchdog’s report that it discussed working with an alleged front company to help Iranian officials spy on civilians.

Citizen Lab, the Toronto-based digital and human rights organization, alleged in a Monday report that Port Coquitlam, B.C.-based PortaOne was involved in 2019 discussions to help set up a new mobile phone service in the Islamic Republic, which is now facing a massive wave of upheaval.

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The Citizen Lab report, which was shared with Global News as well as journalism outlets in two other countries, suggested PortaOne discussed providing back-end services in 2019 to a new Iranian cell service provider.

But based on documents the Citizen Lab described as leaked emails and attachments, the new network was meant to be integrated into Iran’s surveillance state apparatus – with sensitive private information about users’ identities and mobile usage easily accessible to authorities.

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PortaOne did not deny that an unnamed sales manager engaged in talks with Ariantel, the Tehran-based mobile provider, in 2018 and 2019, as alleged in the Citizen Lab report. But they said when the deal was submitted for approval, it was not with Ariantel – but a Portuguese-based company they allege was a front for the Iranian mobile provider.

“An immediate investigation by senior management revealed that (a) Portuguese company was a front for Ariantel,” the company said in a statement through their lawyer. PortaOne added that payment was returned and the contract was formally cancelled on Nov. 8, 2019.

“We have since had no involvement whatsoever with or supplied products or services to this Portuguese company, Ariantel … or any other Iranian company or entity. Consequently, any suggestion that PortaOne has supplied software … which is used to intercept or surveil calls in Iran is false.”

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Ariantel did not respond to a detailed list of questions sent by Global News on Thursday.

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But the saga is raising questions about Canadian tech and telecommunications firms’ providing services to repressive regimes.

“It would be a wild west” when it comes to Canadian firms selling support services and software to foreign countries, said Algis Akstinas, the founder and CEO of Data On Tap.

“You sometimes don’t know and some of your partners might be involved in some sort of a project that has long tentacles, and go out somewhere you didn’t want to go.”

Surveillance powers can't be understated, report says

The Citizen Lab report shared with media organizations in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. relied on what they describe as leaked emails and attachments provided to the Intercept, a U.S.-based media outlet. The cache of purported leaked documents were largely from Ariantel, and while Citizen Lab researchers assessed the authenticity of the emails, they could not be independently verified by Global News.

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The report was shared under embargo until Jan. 11, but Citizen Lab requested that media organizations hold back publication until Jan. 16 after receiving additional responses from companies named in the report. Citizen Lab, which is based out of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, has gained international recognition for its human rights advocacy and research into digital surveillance and state-sponsored spying.

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A lawyer for PortaOne, Seva Batkin, said the company has not seen the emails and could not confirm or deny their authenticity. Global News emailed the account of a PortaOne employee included in the documents, but did not immediately receive a response.

Citizen Lab detailed a system where mobile providers in Iran would integrate their networks with Iran’s Communications Regulatory Authority, giving authorities access to user information, who users call or text, and even the ability to block internet usage.

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“The surveillance and censorship capabilities resulting from this level of integration with mobile service providers cannot be understated,” the report read.

“Because Iranian authorities receive information from all mobile service providers, they have deep visibility into all services used, who is communicating with whom, for how long, how often and where. They can also identify the current phone numbers used in certain geographic areas based on Cell ID or street address.”

“This information can be used to decide who, what, and when to place restrictions or make changes to a user’s mobile service plan, such as the user’s social community or the location of political demonstrations.”

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Citizen Lab requested media organizations delay the publication of their findings on Wednesday, after they received new information from the companies they named in their report. Global News agreed to delay publication because much of the information in the report could not be independently verified by news organizations.

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Iran's brutal protest crackdowns lead to executions

The regime in Iran is engaged in a brutal crackdown on protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in the custody of the regime’s morality police in September 2022. She was detained over an alleged infraction against the country’s dress code.

But economic troubles faced by Iranian citizens – who are dealing with runaway inflation and high unemployment – are also a factor in the widespread protests, which have diminished after the regime in Tehran began handing down death sentences and hanging alleged dissidents.

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Sara Shariati, a Canadian-based activist critical of the Iranian government, emphasized how mobile services and internet apps fuelled the protest movement.

“Right at the moment, it happens because we have to react to it quickly … you have to know when the person will be executed. For example, tomorrow morning, the call for protest comes out that night and you have to go,” Shariati said in an interview with Global News last week.

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“So it is hard to get this information, but you have to be on social media trying to get the information and try to react to it.”

'Extremely powerful' spying powers

There are ways for Canadian tech firms to ensure they’re not directly or indirectly providing services to repressive regimes, according to Akstinas, whose company provides mobile services in the U.S. and hopes to do so in Canada soon.

“There are tools and there are ways for you to audit these things,” Akstinas said in an interview.

“There are startups that actually provide compliance, auditing and give you certain certifications and so on. It’s an emerging field of being able to just, you know, have visibility (on) where the data is going, who is touching it and what’s the whole flow.”

A lawyer who works in the telecommunications field, who agreed to speak to Global News on the condition they not be named, said that it can be difficult for small firms to get good legal advice – particularly when it comes to complex geopolitical issues and international sanctions.

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Gary Miller, a Citizen Lab researcher who worked on the report, said the surveillance system detailed in the purported leaked documents represents an “extremely powerful” ability for Iranian officials to spy on their citizens.

“They do have ultimate control,” Miller, who worked for U.S. telecommunications security firms before becoming a whistleblower and joining Citizen Lab, said in an interview.

“I think this surveillance apparatus that we’ve uncovered in our research is something extraordinary … in terms of the global telecommunications industry.

“(It’s) extremely impressive … and scary at the same time.”

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