Vendor takes the rap

Nokia Siemens Networks is in hot water for the second time in as many years over cellular network equipment it sold to Iranian operators in 2008.

Last year, following the controversial presidential elections in which the opposition Green movement disputed the results that declared Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner over Mir-Hossein Mousavi, allegations surfaced that the government had used deep packet inspection technology supplied by NSN in 2008 to monitor and filter Green activist websites and email.

Human rights activists blasted NSN for selling such technology to Iran. NSN denied it sold Iran DPI tech, but admitted that mobile network equipment it sold to operators MCI and Irancell included lawful interception management system (LIMS) technology, a standard under ETSI and the 3GPP, and a legal requirement in many major markets, including the US, Europe and other Western countries.

Now, NSN is being sued by Isa Saharkhiz, an Iranian journalist and political activist who was arrested in the wake of last year's election protests and subsequent crackdown, and remains in jail. The suit, filed in the US by Maryland law firm Moawad & Herischi in August, says that Saharkhiz was tortured and mistreated in Tehran's Evin prison, and claims his detention was the direct result of Iranian authorities using NSN's LIMS tech to tap his calls and determine his location.

The case has revived many of the same arguments raised by the original allegations a year ago. Human rights groups have denounced NSN for putting profits over people by doing business with Iran at all, let alone sell them spytech. NSN has said that it has since dropped LIMS development, and admitted to a European parliament sub-committee on human rights in June that it "should have understood the issues in Iran better in advance and addressed them more proactively", but in the end the accountability for misuse of its technology sits with the Iranian authorities, not the company that supplied it.

Not to belittle the terrible ordeal that Saharkhiz and others like him have endured, but NSN does have a point. Technology suppliers can't realistically control how their customers use it. And LIMS technology, like most telecom technology, can be used legitimately and responsibly to catch actual bad guys. The ultimate problem is the government's attitude that dissidents count as bad guys.

Benefits vs risks

That raises the broader question of whether vendors should even consider doing business with oppressive governments in the first place. And NSN's response raises another fair point - the benefits of widespread telecommunications in such markets (not just economic growth and productivity, but also enabling more people to communicate more freely with each other and with the outside world) arguably outweigh the risk of abuse.

Ironically, the 2009 election in Iran is an interesting example of the latter. One of the major stories from that election was the "Twitter Revolution", and how the results, the protests and subsequent crackdowns were reported nationwide and worldwide via mobile phones using Twitter, Facebook and SMS despite government censorship of local media and foreign media being ordered to stay in their hotels and offices.

Roughly 60% of Iranians have a mobile phone (compared to 10% five years ago) - that makes it harder than ever logistically for the government to use telecom to keep its people on-message with official dogma and spy on every single person who doesn't like president Ahmadinejad.

Not that they don't try. That's why, sadly, the empowering benefits of higher telecom availability  don't prevent things like what happened to Saharkhiz and many, many others. Which brings us back to the thorny issue of whether the benefits outweigh the potential for abuse, and whether technology suppliers can be legally liable as accessories and/or enablers.

In any case, it's a safe bet that the issue will get even thornier if the NSN case goes ahead, and NSN loses. If NSN can be held responsible for Iran using its equipment to jail and torture people, then so can any vendor that has supplied gear with similar capabilities in other markets.