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Lawful Interception: Friend or Foe?

At the end of August, Isa Saharkhiz filed a lawsuit against Nokia Siemens Networks for human rights abuses. Apparently, the Iranian journalist and activist (before going into hiding in northern Iran) wrote an article that criticized Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidential election victory. Saharkhiz was later tracked down by security forces, arrested and beaten for more than a year, which he says was the direct result of mobile telephone intercepts and monitoring. Saharkhiz is now demanding that wireless communications systems based on global technology standards be sold without monitoring or tracking capabilities zorb balls for sale.

This controversial issue, better known as lawful interception (LI), is where law enforcement agencies (authorized by judicial or administrative order) conduct surveillance of circuit and packet-mode communications. It wasn’t long ago (2006) when then President George W. Bush signed an updated version of the Patriot Act, which increased further intelligence agencies’ ability to share information and loosened prior restrictions on communications surveillance. LI made headlines at the beginning of 2010 with the Google and China debacle, where Google was the victim of malicious hackings conducted with the approval of Chinese government agencies.

With respect to the Saharkhiz lawsuit, he argues that Nokia provided equipment with foresight of how Iranian authorities might use it to violate human rights. According to Saharkhiz, it is a corporation’s responsibility to adhere to global human rights norms and if they don’t they should face legal as well as social accountability.

Nokia stresses that mobile communications and the open and dynamic structure of the public Internet presents vulnerabilities that need to be watched. Monitoring can play an instrumental role in gathering intelligence data needed to restrain terrorism and track other threats to people, assets and information. Furthermore, Nokia says it is unrealistic to demand, as Saharkhiz does, that wireless communications systems based on global technology standards be sold without that capability.

Should Nokia be held accountable for the way Iran’s government approached the issue? Is handing over real-time forensic evidence via LI unacceptable? Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, LI reports have had an excellent record of standing up in court as compelling, admissible evidence. One thing is for sure, LI techniques have come a long way and are still undergoing radical transformations to cope with the dynamic changes in both communications and networks.

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