Checking in with programmer who fled Iran

I checked in last night with the exiled Iranian computer programmer I wrote about a couple weeks ago.

He had nothing new to offer in terms of Iranian cyber activities, but a few things about the conversation were noteworthy.

First, though he's still skittish about his full name being released, he has created a cover name for himself: Majid Arbabi. OK, I said to myself. Hackers create cover names for themselves all the time. And since this guy is worried about being sent back to a country where he was in danger, my gut told me to go with it.

I do know his real name, the job title he held in Iran and the country he's living in now. But I'll keep those details under wraps. I mention it to drive home the point that he is real.

Before I go further, a little background is in order:

Majid first contacted me in October about his story. He described himself as a computer programmer and software developer who fled Iran after the government began harassing him to put his skills toward its cyber warfare efforts.

I was eager to interview him, and, he seemed equally eager to tell me about what he saw and experienced. 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.

Some readers were highly skeptical of the story I wrote two weeks ago, and to some extent that's fair. When the source is not named and the details he offers are somewhat vague, people will be skeptical.

Here was one reader comment at the time:

"Who might be the intended target audience of this story, void of useful facts and filled with speculation, propaganda and amazing leaps to conclusions? This kind of articles remind me of the tension building exercises along the border between North and South Korea." --anonymous

To answer the question, I saw this as a small piece of a much larger puzzle. True, the descriptions weren't as detailed as I would have liked, but I felt it was better than nothing. I put it out there as something to be discussed.

During RSA last week, I felt somewhat validated when U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn III said the Department Of Defense (DoD) is set to soon complete a new cyber security strategy that will explicitly recognize cyberspace as a new and official warfare domain.

Now we can fast-forward to yesterday, when Majid contacted me again. Here's the discussion that followed:

Me: Any other updates I can give readers, in terms of what you are doing in your current location?

Majid: No updates other than that I've lost just about everything since coming here.When I was in Iran I had everything.

What are the specific things you have lost?

Majid:I'm far from family, for one thing.

Me: Wife? Children?

Majid: No, I mean my mother and brother.I had a good life when I was in Iran. I had enough money. It felt silent and safe , with family, a good car and a big house.

Me: What are your living conditions now?

Majid: I get just 300 euros a month, so if I buy two books from Amazon I have nothing left to buy food. I've also lost my computer lab and I have just an old used laptop.

What are you planning to do now?

Majid: I have to stay here and just hope for a change.

Me: Wouldn't one of the western governments want to hire you for your knowledge of Iranian activities?

Majid: I will not do that!I want to work in peace.

Me: What if it were for a private security firm?

Majid: I don't see any problem in working as a security consultant for a private or non-governmental company.

Me: It sounds to me that you want to just be a software developer without getting pressure from governments to work on things that would be used in warfare.

Majid: That's right. I dont want to work as a cyber gun.

That was the end of the conversation. But we agreed to keep in touch.

As I keep getting more detail from him, I'll update you here.

In the final analysis, I don't see anything in our discussions as some huge revelation. Everyone knows that our government and just about every other government is working on various forms of cyber weaponry.

But Majid had, in my opinion, an interesting perspective as a computer programmer who wanted nothing to do with security and cyber warfare but felt he was being forced into it by his government.

He also started to feel threatened, so he left.

Take from it what you will.

--Bill Brenner

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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