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Poking Holes in Iran's “Electronic Curtain”

September 27, 2013
Nima Rassooli
8 min read
Poking Holes in Iran's “Electronic Curtain”
Poking Holes in Iran's “Electronic Curtain”

Poking Holes in Iran's “Electronic Curtain”

In March 2012 the White House uploaded President Barack Obama’s fourth annual Nouruz address on Youtube. As space and time pixilated in a streaming video, Obama described the Islamic Republic’s massive online surveillance and censorship apparatus as an “Electronic Curtain,” a twenty-first century equivalent of the Soviet Union's Iron Curtain, controlling what Iranians are permitted to see and hear. Obama declared that America is committed to protecting and promoting freedom of expression in the digital world, an assertion that the U.S. Government has backed up with cash: between 2008 and 2011, Congress has authorized $76 million in the fight against online censorship worldwide. It is not coincidental that the American fight against online censorship focuses on the activities of geopolitical rivals, nations like Syria, Cuba, China, and Iran.

Though these efforts have not generated a great deal of attention in the mainstream media, they are a subtle cornerstone of America's Iran policy. By helping Iranians secure unfettered access to the Internet, the thinking does, Washington is enabling ordinary people and civic actors alike to connect to the outside world. While this will not propel or nurture activism on its own, it offers Iranians alternative sources of news from regime propaganda and access to both social networking sites and the vital Iranian cybersphere, which function as a practice salon for the sort of public debate and civic space that activism requires.

The most significant efforts the United States has funded to date are the open source software projects Tor and Psiphon, which enable users to circumvent Internet filtering. Tor is a software that promotes anonymity and privacy by using distributed relays of proxies by users to prevent surveillance and allowing access to blocked sites.  Psiphon is similar to Tor in that it uses proxies to dodge censorship, but it doesn’t have as much anonymity protections as Tor does.  The U.S. Government and private donors are also at work on newer projects, but the shadow of the failed effort called Project Haystacks looms large over these efforts.

In the anticensorship world, the term Project Haystack evokes the same gloom and dread as Chernobyl, a catastrophe of epic proportions. Designed to help Iranians evade state filtering by using proxies, the software was designed by a Silicon Valley hacktivist called Austin Heap. Heap designed his proprietary software during the heyday of Iran's Green movement, and a romantic narrative emerged online around his effort, which drew gushing admiration from the media, Washington policymakers, and Iranian-American civil society advocates. The software received a rare specific sanctions license for export to Iran from the Treasury Department.

 But due to its proprietary nature, Haystack never underwent a process of external review to test for potential flaws. Only when pressed by various groups and individuals for security analysis, Haystack agreed in late 2010, and immediately after collapsed due to the vast range of security flaws that were discovered. Thankfully, Haystack ended before it became available to the Iranian public at large, who would have faced serious security threats through its use. “Project Haystack was a good lesson for everyone. I am glad that it happened,” said Ali Bangi of ASL19, a group of Iran Internet researchers/civil society advocates at the University of Toronto.

In the aftermath of the Haystack debacle, private and government funders alike, including the U.S. State Department, have turned towards open source software to avoid such a recurrence. “Open source is useful for establishing whether its [software] trustworthy,” says Collin Anderson, a UPenn affiliated researcher. “Software can be peer reviewed and withstand the test of time. It is a process. And open source allows this.”

In the last two to the three years, the State Department has increased its funding for ambitious, multi-million dollar open source software projects focused on combatting Internet censorship. One major effort is the Commotion Wireless Project overseen by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute’s  (OTI). Project Manager Andrew Reynolds explains that Commotion gives users a toolkit to build a mesh network, an alternate decentralized communications network. The toolkit is a software with a user-friendly interface that allows Commotion users to connect and keep track of mobile phone users and computers connected to the alternate network.

A mesh network allows Internet users to create an alternate “big local area network” for connectivity for citizens who don’t want to deal with state- affiliated communications networks run by Internet service providers (ISPs) and mobile operators. To put it simply in an Iranian context, Iranian mobile phone and internet users can ditch the Iranian Revolutionary Guard-affiliated Telecommunications Company of Iran (TCI) telecommunication infrastructure and set up a network that makes it difficult for cyber-authorities to monitor their communications. 

The Iranian government controls and commands mobile phone operators and ISPs, and has in the past frequently instructed both to cut or slow down communications networks, as during the 2009 post-election uprising. In these instances, Iranians could instead use Commotion Wireless easy-to-use user interface to setup an alternate local area network connecting phones and computers. Iranians using Commotion would still be connected and would use a decentralized line of communication not monitored by the government, as Commotion uses end-to-end encryption. Users would be able to use Tor, Psiphon and all other anti-filtering tools along with the Commotion’s mesh network technology.

OTI has test piloted the Commotion Wireless project in many locales, from the gritty streets of Detroit, Michigan to rural India and Tunisia, to the contentious environment of the Occupy Movement’s protest in Washington DC. OTI has understood from the different contexts it has tested the software that the user should be able to adapt Commotion to the setting at hand. Reynolds says that Commotion efforts need to be as “agnostic” as possible with regards to software and hardware used. Whether a user in Iran has slow or intermittent internet connection and relies more on cellphones for communication, the user can modify or adapt Commotion to meet his or her individual needs.

It is expected that Commotion's version one will be available by the end of the year, though the project is yet to be stable when used in authoritarian societies. According to Reynolds, two years  ago before Commotion was launched, Iranian hardline newspapers and the Ahmadinejad-appointed former intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, were quick to denounce the project as a Western plot. Iranian politicians and pundits have done the same with Google’s Loon, a project that attempts to deliver high-speed internet access throughout the world from far access deserts in Mongolia to authoritarian contexts like Iran.  On, Iran-based IT news expert Navid Kamali  declared Loon as a conspiracy by the “Enemies of Islam.”

Iran's state affiliated media haven't yet caught onto a new State-Department funded project called Lantern, but it will likely similarly raise concerns. Lantern is open source anti-filtering software soon by Brave New Software. Brave New Software founder Adam Fisk describes: “Lantern uses peer-to-peer technology and software networks for people in the uncensored world to be access points to people in the censored world.” Adam Fisk notes the design is similar to Psiphon in that it uses VPNs, SSH, and proxy technologies, yet Lantern has more features because of the peer-to-peer (p2p) element.  Brave New Software named the project Lantern because the software could be a “light” guiding users to bypass censorship in contexts like Iran’s “Electronic Curtain.” 

The software is user friendly, with a simple user interface that includes a map of the world displaying how many Lantern users are using the software globally. From a simple scroll down menu, people can choose from whom and who they would want to accept proxies to help them evade censorship . The users can choose from their Google contacts in their Gmail or from their emails contexts who can serve as their access points.  Fisk describes the project as being based on “trust and peer-to-peer.”

Not only will Lantern give” power-to-the-people,” it will provide trust which is crucial for internet privacy issues. In Iran, trust is essential for users as there are widespread rumors that many anti-filtering software’s and virtual private networks are compromised by the regime. Lantern is early in its development and is not yet ready to be used in authoritarian contexts. According to Fisk,  Brave New Software  will release the first version in late September on the project’s website for download.  As the software develops and feedback is provided by the open-source community to make Lantern robust for countries like Iran, it will soon be available on the streets of Tehran.

As new open-source software projects dedicated to anti-filtering and digital privacy issues emerge, each software needs to be peer-reviewed and audited. The process ensures they are functional and protect user’s privacy.  The London-based Innovative Technology for Social Impact(IILAB) has come up with the OpenIntegrityIndex, which allows users to decide  whether a given software sufficiently protects the privacy of users. The OpenIntegrityIndex gives users without technical backgrounds ratings to help them decide what software to use. The OpenIntegrityIndex uses badges similar to Creative Commons in the security protections of software.

While Iranians are still a long way off from having access to technologies that will help them safely evade the state's internet filters, the new tools being developed will tack Iran's censorship and surveillance apparatus in new ways. Commotion provides Iranians with the option of sidestepping state affiliated ISPs and mobile networks, essentially relieving them of the fear of state eavesdropping. Iranians can perhaps one day use Lantern as a defense against filtering and be relieved that the people providing the proxies are trusted friends. As the brief lifting and then re-filtering of Facebook and Twitter demonstrated earlier this month, Iran's electronic curtain is still firmly in place. 


Nima Rassooli is an independent scholar based in California. He has a B.A. in Political Science from the University of California, San Diego and an M.A. in Political Science from San Francisco State University. His current research is on the relationship between digital technology, state power, and cyber-capitalism.