South Africa’s MTN Group linked to Iran and Syria mobile surveillance

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Bloomberg reports: AdaptiveMobile Security Ltd. ended its contracts with an Iranian phone company following the disclosure that the closely held firm supplied and serviced technology for monitoring and storing text messages. AdaptiveMobile also supplied MTN Syria. Both the Iranian and Syrian networks are part-owned by South Africa’s MTN.

AdaptiveMobile, based in Dublin, stopped doing business with MTN Irancell, Iran’s second-largest mobile provider, as of May 24, according to United Against Nuclear Iran, a New York-based advocacy organization that pressures companies to cut business ties to Iran. The group cited an e-mail from AdaptiveMobile.

Iranian authorities use surveillance technologies to round up and interrogate political activists, according to accounts provided by victims and human rights groups. AdaptiveMobile sold technology for monitoring and storing text messages to Irancell in 2008, Bloomberg News reported last October. The company was still servicing the commercial gear. Police have access to the system, two former MTN Irancell managers said.

“We applaud AdaptiveMobile for ending its business in Iran,” said Kristen Silverberg, president of United Against Nuclear Iran, in a statement. “AdaptiveMobile has made the responsible decision, and we encourage other telecommunications companies to follow suit.”

Three AdaptiveMobile executives didn’t immediately respond to e-mailed or telephoned requests for comment. They are Brian Collins, chief executive officer; Gareth Maclachlan, chief operating officer; and Hannah Summers, who sent the e-mail to the advocacy group.

“AdaptiveMobile formally terminated all contracts with MTN Iran, and no longer has any business in the country,” Summers said in the e-mail to United Against Nuclear Iran.

2008 Transaction

The company said last year that its technologies were for fighting spam, viruses and “inappropriate content” and weren’t designed or sold for law enforcement. The company planned to cease doing business in Iran when the contract was up in late 2012, it said, because continuing the arrangement could damage its reputation.

Johannesburg-based MTN Group owns 49 percent of Irancell and operates the network.

Other authoritarian countries across the Mideast and North Africa also employ Western surveillance tools for political repression, Bloomberg reported last year.

An AdaptiveMobile document detailed the system requirements for the equipment sold in 2008 to Irancell. The technology would be used to analyze all messages in English, Persian or Arabic for keywords or phrases, store them and flag those caught by filters for review.

Syria Sale

While AdaptiveMobile executives confirmed the Irancell deal and an upgrade to the system to handle more messages, they said last year that it was intended only for commercial purposes. They denied any involvement with Iran security or police.

The Irish company told Irancell that “under no circumstances was our technology to be used for law enforcement purposes,” CEO Collins said last year in an interview.

Collins said he believed that one of Bloomberg’s sources was a former employee with an axe to grind, and that at least one of the documents in Bloomberg’s possession had been doctored, without being more specific.

AdaptiveMobile also supplied message-filtering technology to MTN Syria, the country’s second-largest mobile operator, which is 75 percent owned by MTN Group, according to four people familiar with the system, Bloomberg reported earlier this year. Amid a bloody crackdown, the Syrian government ordered blocks on text messages containing politically sensitive terms such as “revolution” or “demonstration,” according to two people familiar with the filtering systems.

At the time, Collins told Bloomberg the information was incorrect but didn’t respond to questions. Following publication of the article, AdaptiveMobile said in a statement that it hadn’t provided upgrades or new releases to Syria since 2008 and that its support agreement ended in 2011.

According to a Wall Street Journal report, during the 2009 Iranian election protests, the Chinese telecom firm Huawei carried out orders from the Iranian government on behalf of its client MTN Irancell to suspend text messaging and Skype, which is popular among political dissidents. As the anti-government protests unfolded, MTN Irancell reportedly grew more interested in acquiring location-based services, which could enable to Iranian government to track users’ locations. In August 2009, the British company Creativity Software in partnership with Huawei announced that it had won a contract to supply MTN Irancell a system with location tracking capabilities.

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