Exiled Iranian programmer: 'My life was in danger'

An Iranian computer programmer explains why he fled his native country after his government grew tired of his opposition to its cyber warfare scheming.

A major topic sure to be discussed at RSA Conference 2011 next week is cyber warfare -- specifically, whether or not we're really in the middle of one. Fueling the debate is Stuxnet, a piece of malware widely believed to be the creation of Israel and-or the U.S., designed to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.

Whatever the truth about Stuxnet may be, one researcher wants the world to know Iran is working on cyber weaponry of its own. He knows, because the Iranian government had him working on it before he fled to another country.

Also see "Cyberwar: Is Offense the New Defense?"

He first contacted me in October about his story. I was eager to interview him, but I had to wait for my questions to be answered. He was still getting his residency status squared away in the country he had fled to, and didn't want to jeopardize the proceedings. A week ago, he decided that process was at a point where he could share his story, but requested I keep his name and current country anonymous because of obvious safety concerns. Since October, we've had numerous conversations via Facebook, e-mail and IM. I asked if he would answer some questions if I e-mailed them. He agreed.

What follows are a series of questions I e-mailed him after we first got in touch, along with the answers he gave last week. To the reader, his revelations may not be Earth-shattering. He also doesn't go into explicit detail on Iranian activities. Rather, he talks about what he saw in a very general sense. But it does offer another piece of the puzzle that, when put together with other nuggets of information coming from Iran, hopefully presents a bigger picture.

CSO: Let's start with your background in Iran. Where are you originally from and how did you get into your line of work?

A: I born in Iran, and my passion was computer programming/networking, and I was kind of successful in this line.

Q: Describe the exact work you were doing and how it made you privy to what was going on in the government ?

A: I mostly worked for a private contractor that was working for the government. I was hired to focus on network security, project analysis and programming. I was pretty good at my work and I think that success was what caught the government's attention. They started offering me jobs that involved me with working directly for the government. That was not really my interest, job offers that put other people in danger.

Q: What are some of the specific activities the government is working on and who are the main targets? Israel? The U.S.?

A: They were asking me to do defensive and offensive projects. In defensive, they wanted to make teams including me and some others to secure their servers and wanted me to work on their customized operating systems so they were more secure from attack or from being attacked by other countries.

Other parts of my job were working on foreign servers and resources, trying to find data and information (presumably in an effort to uncover weaknesses). I didn't exactly know what they might use it for or which organization would work on it from there. Sometimes, people would come from other countries for training with a special Iranian trainer and sometimes they sent highly-trained Iranian operatives to work in foreign countries.

Q: When did you leave Iran and what were the circumstances?

A: After I rejected several work offers from the government, they started to use their power to scare me. I was still rejecting the offers but after an election and plenty of security issues with their servers being hacked everything started to turn bad for me.

Q: How so?

A: They started to see me as one of the attackers so they started putting me in situations where I felt like my life in danger. I had no choice but to leave, so in January 2010 I did.

Q: You've described what's going on as Iran trying to build a cyber army. What are the components of this army? Are entire groups of hackers involved or is the goal to use a small amount of manpower to control botnets and such?

A: They have two reasons to build a cyber army -- first to build more secure local systems and second to be able to spy on foreign security systems.

Q: Explain the developments that make you believe they are moving in the right direction.

A: In my heart I never believed the current Iranian government would take any step for Iranian success; that most of what they do is just to bring shame on other Iranians and make our people angry in a way that they would become followers of terror in public . I had no problem making better and secure systems to help my country but I was always afraid of power being used by bad forces.

I believe the Iranian government and their cyber army doesn't look for peace. I know many smart people in their cyber army who don't have any choice but to work for them. I was lucky being able to run away from a prison they made for me inside my country.

Q: Have you alerted the U.S. government of this activity?

A: I wasn't sure if I should try or if anyone would even care about it. At the same time I couldn't be sure that I wasn't being spied on. In my country everything is being monitored by government so I wasn't sure if I should try, because the concern was whether they would let me and my family live anymore.

I'm sharing everything I know with the country I am now living in. Hopefully the information is being used by people who care about living in peace.

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