How Iran Is Using the Protests to Block More Open Internet Access

How Iran Is Using the Protests to Block More Open Internet Access
For nearly a month, Iranians have been protesting their government with ferocious and unrelenting violence. Sparked by the death of a 22-year-old woman in the custody of the country’s “morality police,” who arrested her for “inappropriate attire,” the demonstrations have been led by young women who refuse to accept restrictive laws such as hijab requirements. The authorities have used violence and other less tangible methods to suppress the protests. Amir Rashidi, director of digital rights & security at Miaan Group in Austin, Texas, is an advocacy group working to improve human right’s in Iran. Rashidi, an Iranian who left the country in 2010, told Scientific American how its government has been using technology such as facial recognition and Internet shutdowns against its citizens.

[ An edited transcript of the interview is available . ]

How does Iran’s government use facial-recognition technology to recognize people?

During the pandemic we discovered that Iran was using facial recognition. The Minister of Health stated that they would use cameras on the streets to take pictures of people not wearing proper masks and then find them. This was in collaboration with traffic police. Two weeks later, an official mentioned facial recognition during the pandemic. He said that they would do the same with women and take pictures of people who don’t wear proper hijab, then find them

.

Iranian officials are proud to have this technology and are always talking about it. People are sensitive. You can see that they attacked cameras in a few videos. There is a concern that facial recognition may have been implemented and is working. Protesters are more careful not to look at the camera, and instead put it behind them. They also wear masks and other such things. The media is careful to blur all faces.

Can facial recognition techniques be stopped from working?

Looking at the experience of other nations, there are other methods: shirts you can wear with a specific graphic that can create [visual] noise on cameras or other methods. Despite the lack of information, none of these options are very promising in Iran right now. We don’t have the information to determine which algorithm [the government] uses. This makes it difficult for us to choose the best solution. One thing that we know is: there is a collaboration between the Iranian and Chinese governments regarding technology. This makes it clear that Iran relies heavily on China for facial recognition. It is easy to see that Iran’s Internet censorship model is very similar to Chinese models. I would not be surprised if China provided this technology to Iran.

What is the model of Internet censorship you are referring to?

The unique work that Iran is doing with the Internet follows the same pattern as China. I believe that Iran’s Internet strategy is far more advanced than Russia or China. The main goal is to have a local network. Officials in Iran call it the National Information Network (or NIN). Usually in regular conversation, we refer to it as a “national Internet.” It is literally an intranet: a local network that is providing connection among different services inside the country, being independent from the rest of the world. So when [authorities] shut down the Internet, this local network is operating, but you don’t have access to the [global] Internet. The Russian government passed a law to create such a network [in 2019], but so far we are not seeing implementation.

This infrastructure also requires more tools and components in order to be functional. For example, [it requires] data centers. It needs search engines, e-mail service, messaging apps for the application layer. China is doing the same thing: It has Baidu and WeChat–these services and apps are subject to a lot surveillance censorship. Iran has its own YouTube, national search engine, e mail service, messaging app, data center, and other things that make the [online] infrastructure work without being connected to Internet. Finally, Iran is passing many laws to establish different bodies that will dictate how this infrastructure and these tools are used to achieve its main goal, which is information control. It is very similar to the Chinese model for localization. However, because of the infrastructure and those policy-making body, it is more advanced and more successful in terms censorship, information control, and other measures. But I want to be cautious [about making this claim] since I’m not an expert in Russia or China.

Are people still using this network when the government blocks access to the Internet?

The Iranian government is exploiting the shutdown to violate people’s rights and encouraging them use local services. The Minister of [Information and Communications Technology] was on the TV, looking like he was proud and essentially saying, “We blocked WhatsApp because they violate our laws, so if you are concerned about your business, you have to move onto the national messaging app.” One national application is called Rubika…. These kinds of apps, such as Rubika or the Chinese program WeChat, are called “super apps” since they allow you to do everything: buy tickets, pay your bills and stream live TV. They’re using the app to conduct mass surveillance and it’s not something they want to hide. Rubika’s head explains how the AI machine can detect sensitive content in a chat between two people and can remove that content from the platform. This is a worrying sign. This is a concern. But if the government is successful….

[Iran also encourages people to use local services through a unique violation of net neutrality: seperating local and international traffic. Local services are almost half the cost of international traffic and offer faster access. International traffic is slower and more costly. All of these factors together can lead to people feeling, especially during times of economic crisis, “Yeah let’s move onto those local services .”

Are there ways to bypass the Internet shutdowns

In Iran there is no promising solution. Although there are many conversations about satellite Internet, the government doesn’t want anyone to have access to it. This is not a reliable solution. Another option is not Internet. It’s data casting, which is [used] in a project by NetFreedom Pioneers. This is an organization based out of Los Angeles. The organization sends data via normal satellite TV. An Iranian user can simply connect the USB to their TV, download the data, and then create a special application to unpack it. There are also news and all the other tools necessary to circumvent these threats that we recommend to people. There are solutions. They are not reliable enough to be distributed on a large scale. However, we must dedicate more resources in terms technology, manpower, and money to research and see if we can find a solution that is actually usable on a large scale.

We need to study the national network and find ways to bypass it. We are working with different Internet freedom groups to study the issue. We came up with some solutions, but one problem is that not everyone is paying attention to the Internet shut down as it happens. Everyone will go back to their normal lives once the shutdown is over. This is not the mentality we need. It is essential that we are ready before the Internet goes down.

What else should you know about this situation.

The international community views this as a problem only for Iran. The problem is that there are many governments around the world that want to violate our rights. They also learn from each other. I would like to see people pay attention to what is happening that threatens freedom and the right to access the Internet. And then deal with it accordingly. Because if China and Russia implement the same infrastructure as Iran tomorrow, the Internet will not be the Internet we know today. It would look like a collection of isolated islands. The Internet’s philosophy of connecting people to one another would be destroyed.

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