Iranian Citizens Subject to Internet Throttling and Pre-election Hacking Campaign

In advance of the June 14 Iranian presidential elections, many of the country’s 42 million Internet users experienced increased censorship online. According to a Reuters report, the government’s already tight grip on cyberspace tightened even further over the past few months. Since March, “Iranians have faced slower access to encrypted international websites using the Secure Sockets Layer protocol, with addresses beginning with ‘https,’ such as … Gmail, and this could push them to resort to unencrypted sites easily watched by the state.”

As the Internet has become an increasingly important tool for self-expression, control over online spaces has become an ever-evolving contest of wits and skills. Without using precautions, casual communications or dialogue suspected of containing subversive content can be intercepted, read, and traced back to  its author, often at high cost to those authors.  Despite these risks, users continue to seek online avenues to stay connected and spread news.

One of the biggest challenges for Iranian Internet users is censorship of online communications. During the month of June Herdict received a third of its total reports from Iran for the year.  This high volume is largely due to Herdict’s partnership with ASL 19.  During this period of time, Herdict received over 1,200 inaccessible reports, many with popular sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.  Interestingly, Herdict also received reports that many of those sites were occasionally accessible, suggesting that the blocks were inconsistent or often incomplete.

These challenges with access, however, don’t mean that Iranians can’t access the sites the government has blocked.  ASL19 reports 5,000,000 known websites are currently blocked in Iran. But ASL 19 helps Iranians get past censorship using Psiphon, a popular circumvention tool.  Twitter is an interesting challenge in Iran because religious and political figures sometimes use it to promote their own agendas, but citizen and civil rights groups often encounter problems with their accounts. Tweets and blogs and press releases were all part of presidential candidates’ campaigns while citizen journalists and groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) were essentially “muzzled” and “chained.”

Bypassing censorship often has downsides in the form of slow and unreliable connections.  A hacker identified as “D” believes that bypassing Internet censorship in Iran isn’t exactly rocket science. “D” said in an interview with Arutz Sheva, an Israeli news Channel, that getting past blocks imposed by the Iranian government in anticipation of last month’s election wasn’t all that difficult for users willing to wait for slow sites to load or those not “spoiled” by fast, easy access to HD images rather than plain old text.

Some of the tools used to evade censorship may also help users avoid surveillance.  Google reported that the Gmail accounts of many Iranian citizens’  had been hacked. Google explained that it had to intervene to address  “politically motivated phishing against thousands of Gmail users in Iran on the eve of the country’s presidential election.”  While use of VPN services wouldn’t stop a phishing attack, it can help encrypt the content of the communications leaving the country.

Many Iranians use VPNs, software to create the illusion that they are accessing the Internet from outside the country. By providing a secure encrypted connection to servers outside of the country, VPNs bypass the government’s content-based web filter because they make it harder for the government to see what sites a citizen is accessing.  Iran, however, has targeted VPNs in general and many of these services have had unreliable connections in Iran for the past year. In response, group of citizen bloggers and activists recently wrote a letter to president-elect Hassan Rouhani lamenting slow connection speeds and asking him to “please fix the Internet.”

If we are to learn something from the struggles of those trying to communicate freely online in Iran, it might be that patience is necessary but not sufficient. Knowledge and skills are essential too. You can find out more about evading censorship through ASL 19, Psiphon, or Alkasir.

About the Author: Leigh Llewellyn Graham

Leigh is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Columbia University and currently an intern at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Her work examines questions of citizenship, cultural learning practices, and digital division of labor in the 21st century knowledge economy. Overarching questions about human-machine relationships push her work into the realms of cyborgization studies, ethnophysiology, and the politics of women’s bodies.

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