Firms that sell spy tech to Iran remain elusive

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The United States has long banned federal contracts for foreign companies that sell monitoring or blocking technology to Iran, but the U.S. government has had difficulty identifying such firms. 

The Government Accountability Office on Wednesday issued a report that turned up no information on companies that were selling communications technology to the Iranian government to either suppress or monitor its citizens' speech. 

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It is the fifth year in a row the report has turned up no results. 

The GAO said the thin results do not necessarily mean those companies do not exist. The watchdog has long talked about the research limitations that “may account for our inability to identify any firms.”

“For example, the competitive and proprietary nature of the communication industry limits any information reported in open sources,” the GAO wrote in its report. “Additionally, technology that can enable acceptable filtering for objectionable sites, such as pornography, can also be used to disrupt the free flow of information and communication.”

The GAO previously said Iran might be relying less on outside technology as its capacity to develop such technology inside the country grows.

Since a 2009 uprising in Iran, the U.S. government has adopted a number of policies aimed at reducing the government’s ability to “monitor or censor Internet communication,” according to the Congressional Research Service. 

That includes a ban on U.S. government contracts with foreign companies that sell that kind of communications equipment to Iran. Since the GAO has turned up no results, however, that ban has not been enforced on any company. 

The initial ban was spurred by 2009 reports that a joint venture by Nokia and Siemens helped provide tech monitoring and blocking equipment to Iran. 

The U.S. restrictions that stemmed from those reports are not part of the sanctions relief negotiated last year as part of the Iran nuclear agreement, which the Obama administration sees as a major foreign policy achievement. 

Separately, the GAO identified six foreign firms that had done business with Iran’s energy sector, but none also had contracts with the U.S. government. Four of those firms were based in India and two were based in China.