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Iran, State, an App and Fingerpointing

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By Dawn Lim September 16, 2010

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Technology designed to circumvent Internet censorship by Iranian officials has been found to be riddled with security loopholes, raising questions on how the State Department could have approved it for distribution in Iran.

Haystack's website boasted that the tool employed "a sophisticated mathematical formula to hide users' real Internet traffic inside a continuous stream of innocuous-looking requests," guaranteeing Iranians protected access to Facebook and other blocked sites.

This week, security engineers discovered serious flaws in Haystack's software. Jacob Appelbaum, who is a programmer for the encryption software Tor, and who helped to reverse-engineer Haystack's code, tweeted, "I think in the end Haystack was misrepresented and its implementation was dangerous to real humans in the field."

Haystack's creator, Austin Heap, has claimed "a few dozen" people in Iran are using an initial test version of the software, but an Iranian activist mentioned that 5,000 people were on the Haystack network, reported The Financial Times.

When Foreign Policy tech blogger Evgeny Morovov ramped up his criticism of Haystack, the plug was pulled on the project. Heap announced Monday that users should refrain from using the program until a third party review was completed.

Much of the ensuing anger circulating in blogs and tweets has been directed towards the State Department. "What is most interesting is the enabling environment -- why tough questions weren't being asked," Morozov told The Washington Post. "People in Washington are jumping on the Haystack bandwagon because it portrays them as hip and in touch with the times but doesn't show all the risks involved."

According to a U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control watchdog blog, because of trade sanction laws, items for distribution in Iran need to be vetted for approval first.

In regards to Haystack, it is unclear to me: 1) how these applications can clearly set out who the end users are; and 2) if the political dissidents who are receiving this software are really willing to share their identities and locations (i.e., addresses) with a U.S. government agency. If the end user information can not be provided I'm uncertain as to whether not OFAC will be willing to issue the specific licenses needed for the lawful exportation of this technology.

Independent bloggers have filed Freedom of Information Act requests to find out if State exercised all the oversight it could, or if it simply made a hasty decision in giving Haystack the green light.

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