The U.S. Government Is Establishing Procedures for a Procurement Ban against Firms that Sell Iran Technology to Disrupt Communications but Has Not Identified Any Firms

GAO-11-706R: Published: Jun 30, 2011. Publicly Released: Jun 30, 2011.

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Joseph A. Christoff
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The U.S. Congress has found that the Iranian government continues to engage in systematic and ongoing violations of human rights, including the suppression of freedom of expression. Such violations have reportedly increased in the aftermath of the disputed presidential election in Iran on June 12, 2009. Of particular concern has been the Iranian regime's crackdown on freedom of expression and interference with the use of the Internet, mobile phones, and other means of communication in order to restrict the free flow of information. According to a Freedom House report, the Iranian authorities have employed extensive and sophisticated methods to tamper with Internet access, mobile phone services, and satellite broadcasting; monitor dissenters online; and use monitored information to intimidate and arrest dissenters. The U.S. government, governments of other nations, and nongovernmental organizations have expressed concern that firms outside Iran have aided the Iranian government in monitoring and suppressing its citizens' activities. For example, in 2008, Nokia Siemens Network, as part of a contract for mobile phone network technology, sold communications monitoring equipment to the Iranian government. As a result of credible reports that the Iranian government misused the technology to suppress dissent and freedom of speech, the company halted all work related to monitoring centers in Iran in March 2009, according to a Nokia Siemens Network statement. Congress directed us to review issues related to Iran's monitoring, filtering, and disruption of information and communications flows in two mandates: (1) Section 106 of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA) requires us to review a procurement ban against entities that export technologies to the Iranian government for monitoring, filtering, and disrupting information and communications flows, and (2) Senate Report 111-201 related to the Ike Skelton National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011 directs us to identify entities that have a financial interest in the development of Iran's ability to monitor, filter, and disrupt information and communication flows and determine which entities have contracts with the U.S. government. To address these mandates, this report (1) identifies the steps the U.S. government is taking to implement the procurement ban in Section 106 of CISADA and (2) reviews open source information to identify the firms that export technologies to the Iranian government to disrupt information and communication flows.

The U.S. government is establishing procedures to implement the procurement ban, such as issuing an interim rule to federal agencies prohibiting procurement from firms that export sensitive technology to Iran. However, as of June 24, 2011, the U.S. government had identified no entities subject to this ban. Moreover, based on our review of credible open source information, we did not identify any firms that export technologies to the Iranian government for monitoring, filtering, and disrupting information and communications flows. There are several possible reasons for the difficulty in identifying any such firms, including (1) the competitive and proprietary nature of the communication industry limits information, if any, reported in open sources and (2) the lack of a clear distinction between technology exported to Iran to disrupt the free flow of information versus technology exported to Iran to support necessary and acceptable filtering and monitoring of communication. In addition, Iran's growing capacity to develop its own monitoring, filtering, and disrupting technology suggests it is relying less on non-Iranian technology to monitor and filter internal communications. We are making no recommendations in this report.

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