Obama Authorizes Sanctions Over Iran, Syria Internet Crackdowns

Executive order would punish countries or companies that help Iran and Syria use communications networks to track dissidents.
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In an effort to prevent human rights abuses in Iran and Syria, President Obama issued an executive order Monday authorizing sanctions against those countries and companies that help them acquire and use technology to track down dissidents online or on communications networks.

"These technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not repress them," Obama said in a speech at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., in which he unveiled a broad comprehensive strategy by the United States to help prevent mass atrocities.

In the executive order, Obama said that he has determined that Iranian and Syrian human rights abuses "facilitated by computer and network disruption, monitoring, and tracking by those governments threaten the national security and foreign policy of the United States."

[ Did the feds go too far in investigating a bomb threat? See FBI Seizes Anonymizing Email Service Server. ]

During political upheavals in Syria and Iran over the last several years, citizens have used the countries' communications networks and the Internet to their advantage, posting photos and videos online and using tools like Twitter to get their word out. However, those countries have responded in kind by blocking Internet access, conducting online propaganda campaigns, and tracking activists.

The executive order will block, without notice, the assets of anyone who has operated or directed the operation of, sold, or otherwise assisted Iran and Syria in the support of technology that disrupts, monitors, and tracks citizen communications. The order also bars donation of funds to such people or entities, and it blocks both immigrant and nonimmigrant entry into the United States of foreigners who meet those criteria.

The order specifically calls out only one individual, Ali Mamluk, director of Syria's General Intelligence Directorate, whom the Obama administration and the European Union have already targeted with other sanctions for his role in the recent crackdown on Syrian dissidents. Other explicit targets of the order include Syrian and Iranian security organizations, privately owned Syrian telecom company Syriatel, and Iranian broadband ISP Datak Telecom.

The Department of the Treasury will oversee the blocking of funds and other measures necessary to carry out the executive order.

In addition to the new executive order, Obama announced in his speech that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) would be issuing a challenge to people and companies to come up with and develop technologies that can help prevent atrocities.

For example, according to a USAID release announcing the challenge, people may want to develop technology that improves the ability to model or forecast the potential for mass atrocities, ensures that early warnings reach at-risk populations, or improves governmental accountability. USAID will announce the challenge's first round of winners in January 2013.

Hacktivist and cybercriminal threats concern IT teams most, our first Federal Government Cybersecurity Survey reveals. Here's how they're fighting back. Also in the new, all-digital Top Federal IT Threats issue of InformqtionWeek Government: Why federal efforts to cut IT costs don't go far enough, and how the State Department is enhancing security. (Free registration required.)