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Bob Ostertag

Bob Ostertag

Posted: June 25, 2009 01:41 PM

In the Digital Iran, Censorship and Surveillance Merge


Now would be a good time to remember that censorship and surveillance are different things. I tremble at the thought that the brave citizen journalists of Iran are now getting a brutal lesson in the distinction.

For nearly two weeks, they have managed to keep one step ahead of the Iranian censors, by using proxies, mirrors, specialized software, and most importantly and surprisingly, Twitter. As a result, people around the world like me, sitting in comfortable chairs sipping coffee and risking nothing, have been able to follow the incredible events there through a kaleidoscope of citizen media that have overwhelmed both Iranian censors and conventional news outlets.

But censoring these communications and surveilling them are very different matters. To censor them, one must intercept them and block them as they happen. To surveil them, one need only reconstruct them after the fact, a far easier task technologically speaking. In techno-geek-speak, censorship is "realtime." Surveillance doesn't have to be. In this case, as long as you can keep a record of electronic communications (a trivial matter), you can then take as long as you like to strain the through digital soup, filtering for whatever words, or addresses, or even patterns of recurrent transmissions you are interested in, and then trace them to their source.

In all the hubbub over the Iranian state's inability to censor the opposition, one question that has not been prominently asked is simply this: why would they want to? Once activist communication moves from the real world to Twitter, Facebook, SMS, and email, activists get the huge advantage that their messages can be received all over the world, but the state gets the huge advantage that all this stuff is neatly stored in one place for surveillance.

"Old school" activist communications through, say, conversations in tea houses, schools, and cafes, were typically 1-to-1 or small group affairs, a sharp limitation compared to a street activist typing a tweet into a cell phone that will be read by hundreds of thousands around the world. And of course, real world activist communications are notoriously susceptible to real world surveillance: informers, recording devices, cameras, and so on.

Nevertheless, state surveillance cannot be in all real-world places at all times. Furthermore, just because a conversation in a cafe is picked up by a hidden microphone does not mean that the cops can reconstruct exactly who the participants in the conversation were, or where they might be found a week or two later.

Not so with electronic communications. The state actually can sift through all electronic communications, and when they find something interesting, they can trace the conversation backward and forward in time, and branch out from one interaction to entire networks of people.

Reading last night's bone-chiling tweets from the Iranian known on Twitter as PersianKiwi, who has been posting virtually non-stop for the last week and a half, raises the question of whether the difference between censorship and surveillance is now playing out to a bloody end in Iran:

** they catch ppl with mobile - so many killed today - so many injured - Allah Akbar - they take one of us


** they pull away the dead into trucks - like factory - no human can do this - we beg Allah for save us -

**Everybody is under arrest & cant move - Mousavi - Karroubi even rumour Khatami is in house guardwe must go - dont know when we can get internet - they take 1 of us, they will torture and get names - now we must move fast -

**thank you ppls 4 supporting Sea of Green - pls remember always our martyrs - Allah Akbar - Allah Akbar - Allah Akbar

**Allah - you are the creator of all and all must return to you - Allah Akbar -


The reason we are going to have to think a bit to really absorb this new situation is that we are not accustomed to thinking of censorship and surveillance as being intimately connected. Censorship as we know it has to do with state authorities stopping the printing of a newspaper or the broadcast of a television or radio show. Surveillance has to do with state informers infiltrating opposition organizations and sitting through endless meetings looking for some dirt, or telephone wiretaps that require thousands of hours of drudgery listening to discussions of grocery lists and picking the kids up from school. Censorship and surveillance were done by different sorts of people, in different locations, with different technologies, working from a different playbook.

One of the principle features of the digital age is that once activities are moved from the real world to the digital, formerly distinct activities become indistinguishable. For example, the writing, producing, and distributing of a newspaper column used to be very different activities. But I can type this column directly into the Huffington Post blog tool, hit save, and my column is instantly produced and distributed world-wide. In the arts, this merging of formerly distinct activities into a vast digital porridge has led to an explosion of multimedia art, in which activities such as making sound and image become one.

The same thing has happened to censorship and surveillance, and this is something that should get our closest attention. In the battle between a publisher and a censor, the publisher wins when the news gets published. But in the battle between the activist and the police spy, the police spy wins when the identity and location of the activist become known. But with surveillance and censorship merging into one, the victory for the publisher and the policy spy are one and the same.