Iran’s authorities have the upper hand when it comes to defining Iranians’ access to the internet – especially during election times when the exchange of news, ideas and communication is more valuable than ever. In turn, software developers, researchers and activists around the world work hard to find new ways to help Iranians bypass the system.
As Iran’s elections for parliament and Assembly of Experts approaches next week, Iranian web censors will most likely be working extra long hours. “Election time is when information makes the biggest impact, so that’s when they aggressively control. They don’t want dissenting voices,” says Ali Bangi, director of ASL19, a Toronto-based technology and research organization that helps Iranians bypass internet censorship.
A group of Iranians in the diaspora set up ASL19 four years ago, responding to the increasing need for Iranians to bypass their governments’ internet filters. Since the disputed presidential election in 2009, the Iranian authorities have taken harsh measures to prevent their citizens from entering the “dangerous” worldwide web. Iranians have repeatedly been denied access to popular social networks including Twitter and Facebook and foreign news outlets such as BBC Persian. Only with special anti-censorship technology – circumvention tools – can they publish photographs of their favorite foods, find old friends, or share news and opinions on these sites.
To help them, ASL19 distributes open-source software called Psiphon, a popular circumvention tool in Iran, and provides technical support, helping Iranians to connect to trustworthy online tools. And most importantly, the group works together with software providers and researchers to find new solutions to Iran’s intensifying election-time clampdown on the internet.
Election Time: The Cat and Mouse Game
The Iranian authorities tend to increase their control over the internet a few weeks before election day. The increased control is evident because people start to experience difficulties connecting to circumvention tools.
“The entire country is connected to the web through one pipeline,” Bangi explains. “Because the pipeline is controlled by the Iranian government, they decide what internet traffic goes, what traffic doesn’t go. When we get closer to elections or when an important day is coming up, they block and control a lot.”
Since the 2009 and 2013 presidential elections in Iran, the authorities’ methods of information control and online censorship have become more advanced. And the same applies for the hacktivists’ methods of bypassing them.
Iran’s censors have now turned their sights on Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) – a type of data processing that looks in detail at the contents of the data being sent — to identify and target circumvention tools like Psiphon, Tor and Freegate.
“Last election, the authorities were able to fingerprint circumvention tools,” Ali explains. “So we had to come up with a work-around, to make these tools work again – to fool the authorities’ censors.”
Simply put, ASL19 and its partners bypassed the censors by making their traffic look innocent. As they found new solutions, more Iranians could again use their technology.
“Then the authorities launched another DPI, and we tried to do another work-around,” Bangi says. “So pretty much in the most important days of the election they had the upper hand. Because authorities were not transparent about their control, users didn’t know what was going on; they thought there was a technical error with Psiphon. They kept connecting but they couldn’t see anything.”
ASL19 later conducted research on Iranians’ use of Psiphon during the 2013 election. It shows that the authorities implemented Deep Packet Inspection before registration of presidential candidates, and network throttling started on the day the qualified candidates were announced. Consequently, in the most critical days of the election, users were not able to freely access information online.
“They strategically picked the important days to launch their best attacks, and it took us a while to find out how they did it and for us to find a work-around. When I say ‘us’, I mean ASL19, Psiphon and a lot of other people. So we work collectively and there is a big group of people involved because our resources are much less than the Iranian authorities,” Bangi says.
Telegram: Will It Stay Alive?
Another question at the heart of the censorship debate in Iran is the popular encrypted messaging and content-sharing app Telegram. Although Iran’s Filtering Committee has said it will not block Telegram, the committee could give the app and its users a hard time.
“We have to see if Telegram gets affected as we get closer to the election, since it has become a very important tool for disseminating information in Iran that is not blocked,” Bangi says.
Again the authorities’ censorship strategies are advancing. Instead of blocking Telegram directly as they have done with many other websites and apps, authorities use methods such as throttling and reduced internet speeds to limit users’ access to them. The methods, which would hinder some of the features of the application useless, are often a successful and more effective way of controlling flow of information in the country.
“They can make Telegram not work properly. They can interfere with the app’s performance in Iran, without being transparent and making users guess what’s going on,” Bangi says. But, he adds, the fate of Telegram all depends on what happens on the ground next week.
“In 2009, Facebook was open before the election, but because the opposition used it very well for mobilization and protest, especially after the election, the authorities started to see Facebook as their enemy and decided to block. I think Telegram is going to play the same role this time. It’s open; both sides are using it. The one that has the power to control it, if they realize that the other side is doing a good job using Telegram, they can decide to go after the app,” he says.
Election 2016: How Do hacktivists Prepare?
So how are ASL19 and its partners preparing before the next elections, which takes place on February 26?
The key is coordination and communication, explains Fereidoon Bashar, ASL19’s “anti-censorship trafficker”.
“One of the ways is by keeping up the flow of communication with users in Iran to make sure that we know what is happening and what problems users have, and to communicate those issues directly to the developers who are working on new solutions, and then keep the users up to date regarding new tools and new versions,” he says. “And then you do this again, the next day.”
But even for an organization like ASL19, a team of seasoned software developers, sharing information isn’t always that easy. The group can’t disclose too many specifics about their strategies – that would be feeding the enemy. And their website has of course been blocked in Iran, making it even harder for the group to reach out to Iranians who need their help.
“It’s almost impossible not to use a medium where you can only reach out to users and fully trust that there is no individual that is working with the authorities,” Bashar explains. “Many of these technologies are open source. So you provide the update to the users and then hope that it takes time for the authorities to figure out how to block the new solution.”
Undoubtedly, the Iranian authorities have the upper hand – if they wanted to, they could shut the whole internet down. But, says Bangi, “the political cost of controlling is high. You can’t shut down so much for so long. People start to complain; and members of parliament become really vocal. So this can only be done for a few days during important times, not on a regular basis.”