What You Need to Know About Iran’s Surveillance Tech

What You Need to Know About Iran’s Surveillance Tech
Thousands of people gather outside Vancouver Art Gallery, during a solidarity protest for Mahsa Amini, a 22 years old Iranian woman who died under custody by Iran’s morality police for not wearing her hijab properly, on September 25, 2022 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Credit: Mert Alper Dervis / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Scientific American tech editor Sophie Bushwick explains how Iran is using surveillance tech against vulnerable citizens.

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast. ]

Tulika Bose: This is 60-Second Science. I’m Tulika Bose. Iranians have been protesting relentlessly and fiercely against their government. This was sparked by the death of a 22-year old Kurdish woman named Mahsa Amini who died in the custody of the country’s “morality police.” Young women led the protests and refused to accept restrictive laws such as hijab. Authorities have responded with violence, arrests, surveillance, and other measures. I’m here with Sophie Bushwick who is the tech editor at Scientific American. Sophie interviewed Amir Rashidi (director of digital rights and security, Miaan Group, an Austin-based advocacy group working to improve human right in Iran),

Bose: Hey, Sophie.

Sophie Bushwick: Hi. Sophie.

Bose: So how did you find this story?

Bushwick: I had heard that some protesters in Iran were worried about the government using facial recognition. I reached out to Amir to ask about this technology. But what I found was that technology used for suppression in Iran goes far beyond facial recognition. The government is actually actively seeking to create its own national intranet, which would be separate from the international Internet and allow it to have a much tighter control over what its citizens see on the internet.

Bose: Do you think that has any ramifications in the near future?

Bushwick: So within Iran, what I learned is that the government has been interested in this intranet project for a while, but there hasn’t been a lot of adoption, in part because people know that the government is really interested in surveillance and censorship. It’s not about creating their own servers. They need their own data centers and their own apps. They have blocked access to WhatsApp because they don’t want anyone to communicate with the outside world or have access to this kind of information. Instead, they suggested that citizens adopt national apps and the nationwide intranet. They have made the nationwide intranet more affordable and faster than accessing global Internet.

Bose: Is Iran taking a page out of anyone else’s playbook here?

Bushwick: Yes, there are a lot of authoritarian governments that are very interested in the use of technology for surveillance and censorship. Iran, in particular, has a technology sharing arrangement with China. There is a Super app category. One example is WeChat. This is a Chinese app that allows you to stream your favorite videos, buy tickets, chat with other users, and browse the internet. It’s one app that can be used to access all the apps that smaller apps might not. There are also apps in Iran that attempt to do the exact same thing. This is because if you get kicked off the app, you lose all access to your life. The other problem is that if the app is controlled or manipulated by a tech company, they can gain very quick access to all your online activities. Iran is not the only country that has this idea of a national intranet instead of the global Internet. Russia stated that they would like to do this, but they have not yet implemented it on an entirely closed basis. It is becoming clear that multiple authoritarian states want their own little internet islands that are separate from the global Internet.

Bose: That sounds pretty terrifying.

Bushwick: It’s not great. It’s not great if you live in countries controlled by the government. It’s not great news for those who believe that the internet is a unifying source through which people can connect and share information about each other.

Bose: Aside from being shut off from like the global internet, what else could happen?

Bushwick: Recent reporting actually suggests one of the ways that the government might be throttling connectivity speeds, at least for cellphone users. It’s a computer program called SIAM. It is installed by telecom companies and allows the government to target individual’s internet speeds. It’s even more terrifying than that. It also has access to other surveillance devices, so it can track a phone’s position and possibly decrypt messages. It seems to be a surveillance tool that telecommunications companies are simply handing over the Iranian government.

Bose: What do you think the biggest takeaway is from this story and what should people know going forward?

Bushwick: Governments that will want to control their citizens are learning from each other. Internet freedom activists also learn from each other, and advocates around the globe are trying to help Iranians. They are trying to increase internet access and they also learn from each other. One of the things I think is the value of the internet worldwide. It allows people from all parts of the world to connect on a common cause.

Bose: Thanks for listening to 60-Second Science. I’m Tulika Bose.

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    Sophie Bushwick is an associate editor covering technology at Scientific American. Follow Sophie Bushwick on Twitter Credit: Nick Higgins

      Tulika Bose is senior multimedia producer at Scientific American. Follow Tulika Bose on Twitter

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