The Challenge of Breaking Iran’s Internet Blockade

Some communications services have systems in place to attempt to circumvent digital blockages. The Signal secure messaging app, for example, offers tools so people around the world can set up proxy servers that securely relay Signal traffic to bypass government filters. The proxy service was previously only available for Signal on Android, but the platform iOS support added Wednesday.

However, if Iranians do not already have the Signal app installed on their phones or have not registered their phone numbers, connectivity outages make it difficult to download the app or receive the SMS code used for the account setup. Android users who cannot sign in to Google Play can also download the application directly from the Signal website, but this creates the possibility that malicious versions of the Signal app could be circulating on other forums and tricking people into downloading them. In an attempt to resolve this issue, the Signal Foundation established the “[email protected]” email address that people can send to request a secure copy of the app.

The Tor anonymity service is largely inaccessible in Iran, but some activists are working to establish Tor bridges in Iran to connect the country’s internal networks to the global platform. The work is difficult without infrastructure and resources, and extremely dangerous if the regime detects the activity. Likewise, other efforts to establish clandestine infrastructures in the country are cumbersome as they often require too much technical expertise for a layman to carry out safely. Echoing the problem of safely downloading apps like Signal, it can also be difficult for users to determine whether circumvention measures they know about are legitimate or flawed.

Users in Iran have also relied on other services with built-in proxies. For example, Firuzeh Mahmoudi, executive director of the US-based nonprofit United for Iran, said the law enforcement tracking app Gershad has been heavily used during the connectivity blackouts. . The app, which has been circulating in Iran since 2016 and is now being developed by United for Iran, allows users to collect information on the movements of the regime’s ‘morality police’ and is now also used to track other forces. security and checkpoints.

The fundamental question of access to connectivity remains a fundamental challenge. Efforts to provide satellite service as an alternative could theoretically be very successful and threaten the entirety of internet blackouts. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX tweeted last week that he was “activating” the company’s Starlink satellite internet service for Iranians. In practice, however, the option is not a panacea. To use Starlink or any satellite internet, you need hardware including base stations to pick up and translate the signal. Acquiring and building this infrastructure requires resources and is particularly impractical in a place like Iran, where sanctions and trade blockades severely limit access to equipment and the ability to pay for services. subscription or other connectivity charges. And while users can overcome these hurdles, interference is also a potential problem. French satellite operator Eutelsat said yesterday, for example, that two of its satellites were blocked from Iran. In addition to providing Internet services, the satellites also broadcast two major Iranian dissident television channels.

“There are so many challenges to set this up in Iran,” says Rashidi of Miaan Group. “If you have a terminal, I understand Starlink works, but getting those terminals into the country is a challenge. And then they represent a security risk because the government can locate these terminals. And then, who will pay for everything and how, given the sanctions? But even if you ignore all these problems, satellite base stations do not solve the problem that mobile data is part of the shutdown. You cannot put a Starlink terminal in your backpack to go to a protest. Satellite connectivity would therefore be useful, but it does not solve the problems.

Although the problem is nuanced, Iranian human rights defenders and activists stress that the global community can make a difference by raising awareness and continuing to work on creative solutions to the problem. With digital censorship and connectivity blackouts being used as levers of authoritarian control, the development of circumvention tools is increasingly vital. As Mahmoudi of United for Iran says, “We all have to keep the light on.”