Breaching Iran’s Cyber Curtain


When the fire at Iran’s notorious Evin prison turned into an inferno visible from miles away on October 16,  Iran’s government took no time in pulling  the plug on the country’s   internet. Amid the information blackout, alarmed relatives of  prisoners  walked to the burning prison shouting,  “Death to Khamenei” and  “Death to the dictator.” Since mid-September, the Raisi government has been relying on the  internet kill-switch, mostly from 4 pm to midnight on weekdays and 10 am to midnight on weekends, to quell the protests  over the custodial killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of its morality police.  Meanwhile, the protests spread quickly across the country, transcending ethnic and sectarian divides. Fears loomed that the public outrage would dissipate as the leaderless #MahsaAmini movement was sustained only through Twitter, Telegram and WhatsApp groups to name a few.

“In recent days, there have been temporary restrictions in some places and at some hours, which have been resolved, and currently the communication network does not have any problems in terms of speed and quality,” reported IRNA, quoting  the Iranian Minister of Communications Issa Zarepour.  The reality is otherwise, of course.

The cost of a few hours of shutting down the internet  is estimated at approximately $37 million daily, besides, the internet blackout  is adversely impacting the livelihoods of some 9 million Iranians at varying levels.  

Sensing a business opportunity, SpaceX Founder Elon Musk sought a sanctions waiver to provide satellite  internet services to the Iranian people.  Unlike the Obama government in 2009, the White House quickly lifted the curbs on the provision of cyber-connectivity. “Activating Starlink,” Musk claimed via Twitter. Contrary to the common perception,  Starlink  needs two large pizza-size duly configured receivers. Dozens of connectivity terminals were smuggled into Iran in late October and have supposedly been active, yet they are costly and prone to jamming because their dish antennas receive as well as emit signals. 

“You can’t put a Starlink terminal in your backpack to go to a protest. So satellite connectivity would be helpful, but it doesn’t solve the issues,” Wired News quoted  Amir Rashidi, director of  internet security and digital rights at the Miaan Group.

Before dwelling further on the internet options available to protesting Iranians,  it is important to examine how Iran’s government has been handling the issue of cyber access. Since the extensive use of social media, SMS and cellular services in the post-2009 election protest movement, Tehran has been pouring millions of dollars into blocking websites while creating its own local intranet.

Iran’s parallel cyber-ecosystem  is an isolated and engineered venue for state-certified data and information where almost everything that happens is monitored. While the global  internet is heavily censored with platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter permanently blocked, the local intranet has created clone versions of popular social media channels and applications.  Iran’s cellular service providers offer packages for the (halal) intranet, where breaches of “decency”  in appearance and views are monitored and dealt with in accordance with Shiite laws.   

Shrewdly, Tehran makes exceptions for a handful of significant individuals to push the revolutionary establishment’s narrative. At the same time, the government blocks access to over 5 million websites.

This is not the first time that the  internet has been shut down.    The most notable  nationwide blackout for an entire week was during the protests of 2019. Similarly in 2017-18, the  popular Telegram app was blocked besides others.  

For those who can access the  internet somehow, Google, Gmail, Yahoo and are blocked and so are Discord, LinkedIn and any video games offering chat features. ProtonMail and iCloud might be accessed. The secure messaging app Signal has been the most useful, offering tools to bypass government filters. In places where Signal cannot be downloaded, the company provides a safe route to download when contacted at [email protected]. Another vital tool is the Gershad app which lets users crowdsource information about the movements of the  morality police and Basij checkpoints.  

On a higher clandestine plain, tech-savvy Iranians are turning to The Onion Router (TOR) designed to provide free and open-source software for enabling anonymity. Some have successfully set up TOR bridges connecting local networks to the web.  GitHub also maintains a page for internet availability in Iran.   #OpIran, a hacktivist campaign run by @AnonOpsSE, has successfully hacked a significant number of official websites and television channels.  Some young Iranians who until recently were hacking into Western systems for their government are now  selling official data on the darknet. Though the use of VPNs is old, the #MahsaAmini movement has taken it to the streets while making other tools like Signal, TOR and GitHub popular as well.  

Besides blocking websites and disconnecting the  internet, the Iranian government  has started suspecting its own cyber teams who are young, ambitious, and globally connected. Videos of the Basij raiding homes of young men or being dragged into prison vehicles on the street keep surfacing.  

To conclude, the world’s leading IT companies such as Facebook, Starlink, Amazon and Microsoft have fallen  woefully short of their ambitions and pledges in technological and ethical terms. However, ingenuity and the will of desperate Iranians, girls and women in particular, are driving the movement against all administrative and technological constraints and odds.

Editorial Team