Iran’s tech meddling, now on the App Store, March 3 2018

Daily News March 3 2018

By Tom Ridge

The recent downing over Syria of an Iranian drone that turned out to have been modeled on captured U.S. technology confirmed what intelligences services and their partners have been saying for years: Iran is actively stealing western technological know-how and fashioning tools of repression and terror.

A new report this month by the National Council of Resistance to Iran (NCRI) makes a sensational new claim that apps offered on Google Play and Apple’s App Store are being co-opted, mimicked or otherwise misappropriated by Iranian intelligence services to monitor the activities of their people and to export malware for cyberattacks against the American people.

This matters not only because it represents an escalation of domestic surveillance by the Iranian regime, but because the U.S. military and intelligence services are assessing who is developing the most potent cyber-threats to America.

In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last month, the leaders of the CIA, NSA and other agencies put North Korea at the top of the heap, followed by Russia and China. We should not underestimate the mullahs.

In a dictatorship, repression tends to move in tandem with the regime’s sense of vulnerability. In this context, Iran’s potential for cyber-attack and repression is worrisome indeed.

Earlier this year came the latest wave of street protests in cities across Iran, as students, intellectuals and others who are angry with the stagnant economy and lifestyle restrictions turned out in force against the regime. Previous mass protests, in 2009 and in 2011-12, manifested because of deepening concerns about plummeting standards of living, government corruption and well-established meddling in the electoral process to rig the votes for regime-approved candidates.

The protests have been met with a new wave of domestic cyberwarfare, led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in collaboration with the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The internal network of the main opposition People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran has established that the regime has focused on mass surveillance through codes embedded in IRGC-sponsored mobile apps to actively monitor and disrupt the communication of protesters and dissidents.

In fact, IRGC has established a homegrown marketplace of domestic mobile apps to spread spyware: Café Bazaar, modeled after Google Play. Ironically, some of these spyware-enabled apps are available on Google Play, Apple Store and GitHub, potentially exposing millions of users worldwide to the IRGC’s spyware and surveillance activities.

Who is engaging in this nefarious surveillance? Iran’s universities have become a recruiting ground for IRGC cyberwarfare personnel. All recruits are hired through front companies that often engage in “research” activities with a few of the IRGC’s handpicked professors.

The NCRI report is a wake-up call that access to free, safe and secure internet is a new battleground between freedom and repression.

It is a large battleground indeed: Nearly 48 million Iranians have smartphones, and about 70% of Iranians have access to the Internet .

As the call for freedom and regime change grows louder in Iran, it is crucial to understand one crucial way the international community could stand on the side of the democracy movement: by implementing effective measures to curb and confront the regime’s cyberspace repression.

Simultaneously, U.S. intelligence officials need to see the threat of cyber-surveillance of the Iranian people as a threat to the U.S.

For one, Iranian malware and spyware is readily available on Western app platforms, potentially exposing millions of Americans to crippling information breaches. Perhaps more importantly, every advance of repressive cyber-technology has a genie-out-of-the bottle effect that can be used by despots anywhere to surveil and control their people.

We have not a moment to waste in defending democracy and those who so desperately want it.

Ridge served as U.S. secretary of homeland security and is a former governor of Pennsylvania.