Iranian Cyber-Struggles

by Narges Bajoghli | published May 3, 2012

From the Green Movement in Iran in 2009 through the Arab revolts that began in 2011, social media have held center stage in coverage of popular protest in the Middle East. Though the first flush of overwrought enthusiasm is long past, there is consensus that Facebook, Twitter and other Web 2.0 applications, particularly on handheld devices, have been an effective organizing tool against the slower-moving security apparatuses of authoritarian states. The new technology has also helped social movements to tell their story to the outside world, unhindered by official news blackouts, unbothered by state censors and unfiltered by the traditional Western media.

But what happens when digital means of communication and coordination are no longer an option for activists or, at least, a very dangerous option? The state of activism in Iran, nearly three years after the largest protests since the 1979 revolution, offers a cautionary tale for partisans of social media’s emancipatory promise. [1] The Internet, in fact, has become the site of a protracted cat-and-mouse game as the state attempts to reassert its control after the 2009 presidential election, which large segments of the population believe to have been stolen by the state for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The very qualities that make new media so attractive to people seeking change from below also make them an ideal means of surveillance and manipulation from above.

Passing the Word

Mobile phone technology has spread like wildfire in Iran over the last half-decade. In 2004, it cost around $1,000 to buy a SIM card, but today, SIM cards are available for $5 and the latest-model cell phones are for sale countrywide, albeit at highly inflated prices due to sanctions (the iPhone 4S, for instance, costs roughly $1,600). During the Green Movement protests, Iranians could not connect to the web from their cell phones, because the 3G network was introduced in Iran only in January 2012. In 2009 cell phones, whether “smart” or not, had four main uses: making phone calls, texting, capturing photographic or video images, and using Bluetooth. Bluetooth, an application that facilitates communication between electronic devices over short distances, allowed Greens to share footage with each other in the streets and then upload the images to computers at home. Many of the well-known protest videos that were seen on YouTube abroad circulated inside Iran via Bluetooth on mobile phones, since Iranians’ access to YouTube was irregular, at best, due to Internet filters.

In mid-June 2009, the first week of the massive post-election protests, Tehran residents passed word of gatherings to strangers on the streets, in shops and in taxis, as well as to friends and acquaintances via mobile phones. At the time, however, the state owned the companies that provided all cell phone and Internet service in the country. By the end of the month, officials there had blocked SMS service and slowed down Internet speeds, compelling protesters to rely on offline contacts. One node of information was the highly organized campaign of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who had been a favorite to unseat Ahmadinejad but finished a distant second to the incumbent in the official results. At afternoon protests, Mousavi volunteers held up signs that read, “Tomorrow, 4 pm, Revolution Square,” announcing the time and place of the next day’s demonstration in broad daylight. The next morning, alarming rumors would spread: Police had cordoned off the demonstration site’s perimeter; security forces had been given the green light to fire on the crowd; Mousavi had disowned the event; and so on. People looking to protest nevertheless showed up near the designated spot in the afternoon, pretending that they were out shopping or on their way home. As the crowds swelled, they joined together and walked to the rally point.

By July 2009, security forces had begun to assault protesters in the streets without restraint. Iranians anxious about loved ones’ safety had to rely solely on person-to-person contacts for reassurance, since the telecommunications company had shut down SMS service. The protests did not stop, however: Since most of them took place around 4 pm, there was time during the day to relay news of changed locations in various old-fashioned ways -- landlines or word of mouth. For news, people relied on satellite television. BBC Persian, which had started broadcasting not long before, became a lifeline, as did Voice of America’s Persian service. For those who had the patience to deal with the slowed Internet speeds, or who went to Internet cafés, Facebook became a hub of information sharing.

Scare Tactics

For all its autocratic tendencies, the Islamic Republic is not a police state that induces dread like the Shah’s regime did before 1979 or like the Syrian regime does today. Before the advent of the Green Movement, Iranians were not afraid to voice discontent with the government to strangers in shops or taxis, but that all changed in the summer of 2009. The crackdown on communications spread something close to paranoia in society.

Security forces picked up people in the streets and scrutinized the text messages and address books saved on their cell phones. Interrogators presented arrested students with printed-out transcripts of their cell phone conversations, saying they were evidence of plotting against the state. Most alarming of all were news reports days after the protests started in June 2009: Nokia Siemens Networks confirmed that it had provided Iran with equipment that allowed the state-controlled telecom company to monitor its customers’ calls. There were also stories to the effect that Nokia Siemens had provided Internet censorship tools to the Iranian government. [2] This news reverberates in Tehran to this day.

People began to suspect that the government could listen to them via any cell phone, even one that was not in use. Two friends sitting down to talk would first secrete their cell phones in their pockets or purses. As the rumors of surveillance grew, Tehranis would turn off their phones, remove the batteries and SIM card, and place everything on top of the table in plain view. The same thing happened among larger groups of people, at coffeehouses or restaurants, at family gatherings or parties in private homes. Only after the devices were thus disabled and displayed would conversations continue.

Whether any of the scarier rumors was true was beside the point. Daily news of interrogations, mass arrests, and torture, rape and death in prison; the sight of riot police deployed continuously in every major square (a novelty for post-revolution generations); the sound of security men on motorcycles, batons and guns in hand, roaring down main thoroughfares -- all this made it very difficult to take a deep breath and question the credibility of the talk of pervasive surveillance. The anxiety, indeed, came to overwhelm the comfort protesters took in the fact that the world was witness to what was unfolding in Iran via social media.

Adaptation

As trepidation grew in tandem with the state’s crackdown, people assiduously sought advice on protecting their identities online. Iranians in the diaspora e-mailed primers on safe Internet usage to friends and relatives back home. Iranian-American computer engineers in Silicon Valley recommended that all messages be sent as attachments rather than in the body of e-mails, so as to get around surveillance programs that flag e-mail accounts by searching for words judged sensitive by the state. Other advisers cautioned that conversations on Skype were insecure (most Iranians, as a result, prefer the comparable service ooVoo), or that Yahoo! was less safe for e-mail correspondence than Gmail. The list went on and on.

Facebook became another site of secret police scrutiny. As arrests mounted, many Iranians changed their last names on their Facebook pages to “Irani” in order to conceal their identities. Iranians in the diaspora began to do the same, out of solidarity, and in reaction to rumors that the authorities were searching Facebook for the names of anyone entering the country. (To this day, inbound travelers will deactivate their accounts or adopt “Irani” or another pseudonym.) No one knew what the government’s Internet surveillance capabilities were, so everyone was taking wild guesses.

Eventually, custom Internet safety courses were developed abroad. Iranians can sign up for these courses via e-mail and receive instructions in how to secure their personal computers as well as browse the web without fear of being monitored. (Sample tips: Use Google Chrome, not Internet Explorer; Macs are safer than PCs.) Computer engineers in the diaspora have been very active in providing these tools to their compatriots in Iran, as have non-Iranian Internet activists like Austin Heap.

As the Iranian government has become more adept at blocking access to websites, a plethora of ways to circumvent the restrictions have emerged. One tool that became highly valuable in Iran was the virtual private network, or VPN, which afforded access to virtually any website, since the actual connection was from a location outside the country. Prior to 2010, Iranians in the diaspora would supply their family and friends back home with usernames and passwords so as to allow them to connect to the Internet via a university or company abroad. From 2010 to mid-January 2012, Iranians could buy access to their own VPN for $8-10 per month. This service has now been rendered ineffectual, however. State interference has slowed the VPNs so dramatically that they can no longer call up unfiltered websites for the user. From late December 2011 to late February, moreover, the general speed of the Internet in Tehran was reduced to near dial-up levels. It is important to note that the slow speeds mostly affect the capital. Even in Karaj, a sprawling city 45 minutes away, the Internet is accessible at high speeds. Residents of other big cities also have little trouble. The capital, however, is the prize in the regime’s game.

Tehran Internet cafés, prior to the summer of 2009, were a fairly safe haven, a place one could go to surf the web without running up against filters, as the staff kept the computer settings up to date and downloaded “filter breaker” programs. The cafés were quickly targeted in the aftermath of the election, however. Many were shut down that summer, and those that remained had to abide by strict new regulations and endure the constant scrutiny of intelligence services. My Facebook account, for instance, was hacked minutes after I left an Internet café in the winter. Today, Internet cafés are required to record the national identification card number of each and every patron.

Who’s in Charge

In much the same way that hardliners in the Islamic Republic squeezed the print media during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), these same factions began to develop ways of policing new media following the advent of the Green Movement. In September 2009, Etemad-e Mobin, a consortium reported to have extensive links to the Revolutionary Guards, bought a 51 percent share in Iran’s telecommunications company, minutes after it was privatized. (That December, the head of the consortium, Majid Soleimanipour, and his wife, were found dead in their Tehran home, reportedly of gas inhalation from a leaky pipe.) The Guards’ various fronts and “charitable foundations” already control vast swathes of the construction, oil and gas, and import-export businesses in Iran, as well as substantial parts of the black market. The telecom deal has deepened the Guards’ near monopoly over the economy while giving it access to every text message and phone conversation in the country.

The state is already using this power to enhance its control over the flow of information and remind everyone who is in charge. The Ministry of Islamic Guidance, which doles out work permits to reporters and news photographers, now sends morning text messages to inform journalists if they can report on the day’s events. When an Iranian nuclear scientist was killed in January, for instance, journalists received a message that they did not have permission to work that day.

Complicating matters further is the new “national Internet,” or Internet melli, that is underway. The Islamic Republic has reportedly been working on this project since 2005. In August 2011, the minister of communication and information technology, Reza Taqipour Anvari, said a “clean Internet” would launch nationwide in early 2012. Official say the rationale for the system is to improve the nation’s cyber-security, warding off such threats as the Stuxnet worm that attacked the computer networks supporting Iran’s nuclear program in 2010, infecting around 30,000 Iranian IP addresses (mostly in government). Determined not be thus humiliated again, Iran has made its efforts to boost cyber-security very public. Many Iranians believe, however, that this “clean Internet” will be an intranet, a closed loop that severely limits Iranians’ access to the outside world, in much the same way that systems in Cuba and North Korea do. Rumors abound as to what this “national Internet” will actually entail, but until it is launched, there is no way to know for certain.
 
The New York Times, meanwhile, has reported that the US government is developing a “shadow Internet” to ease connectivity for people in censored Internet environments. [3] On April 23, President Barack Obama issued an executive order announcing new sanctions on persons in Iran and Syria tied to the sale or use of “information and communications technology that facilitates computer or network disruption, monitoring or tracking that could assist in or enable grave rights abuses.” The White House says these “Grave Human Rights Abuses Via Information Technology” (or “GHRAVITY”) sanctions are aimed at preventing such “malign use of technology” as well as at preserving “global telecommunications supply chains for essential products and services.” Though some Iranian activists welcomed the move, many also see an irony, as they remember the news item from 2009 that it was a foreign corporation, Nokia Siemens Networks, which provided this technology to the Iranian state.

As for the Green Movement, its spiritual leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi were placed under house arrest in 2011. In February, as the one-year anniversary of their confinement approached, activists circulated flyers and posted statements to opposition websites calling for a new round of protests. Then, for four days in the middle of the month, there was an Internet outage in the entire country. The semi-official Mehr news agency said that more than 30 million people were affected. The planned mass rallies did not materialize.

Social media and other Web 2.0 applications facilitate organizing for activists around the world. Despite their usefulness for organizing, however, such tools are also employed by states as surveillance tools, and not just in places like Iran. In early 2012, as ABC News and other outlets reported, US Homeland Security officials arrested a pair of young Britons when they landed at Los Angeles International Airport because one of them had tweeted: “Free this week, for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America.” The two were held for 12 hours and then deported from the United States.

Endnotes

[1] For another such cautionary tale, see Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca Stein, “Another War Zone: Social Media in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” Middle East Report Online (September 2010).
[2] Wall Street Journal, June 22, 2009.
[3] New York Times, June 12, 2011.

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