Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Cyber Warfare Iranian Style

The Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the Ayatollah Khomeini
All revolutions are built on ideas that displace ideas that don’t work anymore. World history is the history of human revolutions.

As 2018 dawns, we are seeing a revolution. Demonstrations in the streets of Iranian cities herald yet another revolution of ordinary people, mostly students and women, clamoring for change up to and including regime change in Iran. While the physical battle ground is in the streets, the infrastructural battleground, where the command, control, communications and management is happening, is in cyberspace. It’s cyber warfare in the truest sense and phenomenon is worth studying.

The Iranian Revolutionary Cycle

The current Shia Islamist government of Iran was born in revolutionary circumstances very similar to those is faces today. In the 1970’s, the Shah of Iran sought to expand the regional influence of his country spending lavishly one the best military he could leverage his economy to purchase. The Shah bought the then ultra-modern U.S. F-14 Tomcat fighter to augment his fleet of U.S. F-4 Phantoms in a bid to control the oil shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf. The cost of buying regional influence left his country a hollow shell, his economy leveraged to the hilt and vulnerable to economic collapse should the price of oil collapse. It just so happened that other Middle Eastern oil producing countries, led by Saudi Arabia, were not too keen on their neighbor Iran controlling access to their Persian Gulf interests. And so the seeds of the Arab Oil Embargo of the 1970’s were germinated. An oil price collapse orchestrated by Iran’s neighbors laid bare the economic weakness of the Shah’s Iran and his leveraged investing into regional military power came crashing down hard on Iran’s domestic economy. A combination of students and clerics demanded change in the streets of Iran ultimately forcing regime change and capturing the US Embassy in Tehran with hostages in the process, a country the Iranian revolutionaries did not particularly like because the US had been the principal supplier of military hardware sales to the Shah’s regime.

The US was not particularly happy with the change in regime either because it complicated a quietly kept Cold War secret of why the US supported the Shah of Iran. The US had built a highway system through the interior of Iran consisting of a series of very long, very straight roads. They were runways for recovering US nuclear bombers returning after attacking the Soviet Union. One of these highway runways, code named Desert One, was used to mount the failed embassy hostage rescue mission. Losing this just a few years after abandoning the war in Vietnam did not put the US in a happy mood. This deeply strategic strain would have unfortunate lasting implications for the relationship between the two countries that would continue, as of this article, to January 2018.

Since the hostages were released in 1980, there have been many changes in the world. The Cold War is now a distant memory, although there still is a Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) to attack what’s left of the former Soviet Union also still floating around. The Middle East has changed from a landscape of early, mostly sectarian, post-colonial fiefdoms to a 12th century religious philosophy war zone equipped with the best of the 20th century’s weaponization.

And the previous revolutionaries of Iranians, the Ayatollah’s and their Revolutionary Guards, have completed their own over extension cycle winding them back in the untenable position similar to the Shah’s in the 1970’s. Like the Shah, they’ve squandered enormous amounts of their treasure chasing regional influence. They spent money to build a nuclear weapons program, a missile program, multiple mercenary/militia initiatives, and a decade long war with their then Baathist-led neighbor Iraq. The Iranian government is again leveraged to the hilt, a hollow shell spending more on funding foreign militias to build a so-called Shia Crescent of influence from Yemen to Lebanon. They may have negotiated with the world to lift sanctions and even got an airplane load of money from the US, but they didn’t spend nearly enough on building an economy capable of employing millions of Iranians gainfully. Those ordinary people are revolting in the streets just like the ones the did in the 1970’s because the Shah didn’t tend to their needs.

The “Medium” is the Battleground

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Madison Avenue theorist Marshall McLuhan exploring the societal effects of technology – back then the universality of the electricity grid and the emergence of television broad casting - coined the phrase “the medium is the message”. That medium has since the DotCom boom of the 1990’s turned ever more to “microcasting”, the algorithmic technology of customizing Internet content delivery so every individual sees something tailored uniquely to them. In the 21st Century, what used to be commercial ad yield exploitation mathematics became the affinity algorithmic core of social media engines. This powerful phenomenon running free on the World Wide Web brought people together to accomplish many things such as the Arab Spring of 2010, the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011, the radicalization recruitment program by ISIS beginning in 2014, the Brexit vote to leave in 2016 and the election of US President Donald Trump in 2016 among other things. By 2018 in open societies, debates has started to emerge over whether this freedom is desirable. Interestingly, the U.S. liberal scholars that in the early 90’s who argued for a laissez faire hands off approach to governing the Internet are the ones most vocal about reigning it in. In parallel, their conservative counterparts work diligently to dismantle net neutrality which, among other things, will reinforce and amplify the power of the content delivery algorithms to tailor services even more beguilingly to humans.

Deeper in the net and less visibility unless you are a direct participant, encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram have connected activists around the world, both good and bad players, to render transparent what closed regimes did not want seen. This is how the world knows about what happened to Aleppo, Raqqa, Mosul, Sudan and many other places in the world where freedom and human rights are not taken for granted.

Repressive regimes fight against the “medium” to control the delivery of content against the fundamental math that controls the Internet’s robotic programming. They are limited in how much control they can exert because of the reality that the world’s dependency on the commerce functions of the Internet are now universal and existential. Also, there aren’t that many activists. As a proportion of total internet traffic, they are a nit. So closed regimes engage in a balancing game of placing boundaries around the portions of the internet the regime’s interests needs to wall off. Sidebar, it’s all about building walls isn’t it? Physical and virtual.

Activists in turn fight back by finding ways to pretend they are in a part of the internet that a regime does not control. The 2018 method of choice for this “hiding from the man” game is to use a virtual private network (VPN) that makes one appear to be in another part of the world; for instance, in Paris when you’re actually in Tehran. This opens up the entire Internet to keep coordinating with your fellow activists even if the regime has built walls. Back before this kind of stuff was a commercial off the shelf service you could install for every computer in a company or individuals could buy for not very much, there were other ways this location spoofing was done. I used to offer friends in sensitive positions remote access to a specially configured spare server in my rack so they could log in and do what they needed to do while appearing to be in the United States. The machine was in server farm that took a strong volume of robotic web page inquiry traffic from all over the world, in many instances from known foreign government owned IP address, so that the channels to and from it were constantly open. It was a discrete tunnel built on one of my favorite design principles, “fly low and avoid the radar”.

The cyber warfare goes back and forth like a cat and mouse chase. Today’s regime hunt for the VPN’s to shut down. Activists try to stay a step ahead opening new VPN’s before the last one is killed. It’s a grassroots form of a self-annealing connection hopping security design based on millions of nodes acting independently. It drives closed regimes bat shit.

In the meantime, the “medium” content delivery engines continue to expand the messaging, a robot reaching out to society and activating an expanding global network of concern based on the simplicity of affinity algorithms and the mechanics of echoing.

Back to the Future

The Iranian Islamic governments struggles to battle for tenuous control to maintain what is increasingly revealing itself to be predictable consequences or a repetition of the Shah of Iran’s mistaken over extension of regional influence investing problem. They do not yet see that what their people are really telling them as they use their VPN’s and Telegrams is that ordinary Iranians love their country and want to see their domestic tranquility improved even if that means they might not become the Shia Islam version of the nth coming of the Persian Empire sweeping across what used to be the Garden of Eden. And underneath the hood the “medium”, a collection of math and logic instructions coded into a planet of robots, fights on for their humanity.

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