Just 24 hours after the Android app Gershad was launched, users reported that the Iranian authorities had blocked access to it. The app, designed to help Iranians track — and therefore avoid — Iran’s “Morality Police,” generated huge interest across Iran, particularly in big cities. But a few hours after going live, it was inaccessible.

The name “Gershad” is a play on words, referring to the Persian term for Iran’s special morality unit, which is tasked with identifying and arresting anyone deemed to be “inappropriately” dressed or in violation of Islamic cultural values.

One user, Mohammad Reza, had only been using the app for a few hours on February 8 when his screen began displaying gibberish instead of providing the useful location information it was supposed to. “It didn’t take them even 24 hours,” he told IranWire, adding that he discovered the fault at around 2am .“You have to give it to them: Sometimes they do move fast. Now we need a filter-breaker for Gershad the same way that we need them for Facebook and other apps.”

Gershad's developers explain the idea behind the app on its website. “According to the deputy police commander for culture, in the year 2013-2014] alone, close to three million people received ‘warnings’ from the Morality Police. Who hasn’t experienced the humiliation and obvious disrespect of such warnings? Why should we be humiliated for exercising a basic right, to wear what we choose? So, angered by so much unreasonable injustice, we set out to find a solution and a way of reducing the level of injustice, and to take back a little of our freedom in a peaceful manner and with a minimum of risk. Gershad is the solution.”

A woman called Sara installed Gershad on her smartphone on the same day as Mohammad Reza. “I thought it very easy to use and everything was explained very well,” she told IranWire. “Since Gershad gathers information for its users, the more people that use the app, the more able people will be to inform one another about where Morality Patrols are stationed.”

The app’s functionality is crowd-sourced, so information comes from users, not from a third party. According to the Gershad website, “Users transmit information about the location of patrols, and Gershad merely displays this information on its map.” The site says, that although the app aims to provide reliable information, because location details are sourced from Gershad users, it cannot verify nor claim responsibility for the information’s accuracy.

Gershad’s use of crowd-sourced information follows the model of other popular Iranian apps, including Wase, which collects up-to-date traffic and road accident information, as well as the location of traffic police units. “Get informed before you approach police, accidents, road hazards or traffic jams, all shared by other drivers in real-time,” Wase’s website reads. “It's like a personal heads-up from a few million of your friends on the road.”

Gershad’s website provides detailed instructions about how to use the app. For example, to report the location of a patrol it gives the following instructions: “First choose the location, then click on the address field in yellow, and press the button.” When the reported location is more than six hours old, the indicator on the map begins to gradually fade.

Sara talked to friends who like the idea of Gershad but had decided not to download it. “Some are worried about the safety of their personal and private information and are afraid to use the app,” she said. But while the app’s developers are unable to promise 100 percent accurate information, Gershad’s privacy policy does promise its users that their information is safe. “Safeguarding the privacy of Gershad’s users is very important to us, and we always strive to protect it,” says the site. “Gershad’s code and servers have been audited for security…by an independent private company.”

“When you send an email to our automatic email-answering server, we can see your email address,” reads the site’s privacy policy. “As your email is processed, it is saved on the server [but] the moment that processing is completed (usually within less than a second), this information is removed. We do not hold your email address on our system.”

Within 24 hours of the app’s launch, 380 people commented on its website, many of them expressing gratitude and praise for the the app. Some appealed to the developers to work on other apps that would address other issues. “If only you could make an app for us motorcyclists to share information about the whereabouts of the police so they can’t confiscate our bikes!” said one person.

But for many, the most serious worry was that authorities might access the app and upload incorrect information that might lead users straight to the morality police. “Don’t you think that the cyber police will concentrate their resources on this app tomorrow and report fake locations in order to ruin the app completely?” one person asked.

But instead, authorities blocked it, leaving an Iranian public increasingly used to circumventing censorship to find a new way of accessing the sought-after tool.

 

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