US government-funded technology companies have recorded an increase in the use of circumvention software in Iran in recent weeks after boosting efforts to help Iranian anti-regime protesters thwart internet censorship and use secure mobile messaging.
The outreach is part of a US government programme dedicated to internet freedom that supports dissident pressure inside Iran and complements America’s policy of “maximum pressure” over the regime.
A US state department official told the Financial Times that since protests in Iran in 2018 — at the time the largest in almost a decade — Washington had accelerated efforts to provide Iranians more options on how they communicate with each other and the outside world.
The US-supported measures include providing apps, servers and other technology to help people communicate, visit banned websites, install anti-tracking software and navigate data shutdowns. Many Iranians rely on virtual private networks (VPNs) that receive US funding or are beamed in with US support, not knowing they are relying on Washington-backed tools.
“We work with technological companies to help free flow of information and provide circumvention tools that helped in [last week’s] protest,” a second US state department official told the FT. “We are able to sponsor VPNs — and that allows Iranians to use the internet.”
The US Treasury department has issued waivers for such software and services, despite the Trump administration’s imposition of swingeing sanctions when it withdrew from the 2015 international nuclear accord.
Canadian circumvention software maker Psiphon, which benefits from US government funding and a Treasury licence, said it recorded a 25 per cent jump in usage in January in Iran. Monthly usage of his app — which provides a private, secure connection for Iranians to manoeuvre through censorship firewalls to reach servers in the west — rose to about 3m users in the country of 80m, Michael Hull, Psiphon’s president and co-founder, told the FT.
President Donald Trump has said he wants to pursue talks with Iran to strike a new deal limiting Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. However, hopes that regime change will come via popular uprising have been bolstered by a wave of protests triggered by the shooting down on January 8 of a passenger jet by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard that killed 176 people.
“We fully expect these protests to continue because the Iranian regime is facing a crisis of legitimacy and credibility,” said Brian Hook, US special representative for Iran.
The Trump administration has built on an Obama-era programme dedicated to providing safe, free internet in countries including Iran. This year the US will spend at least $65.5m on the Internet Freedom programme, a 30 per cent increase since Barack Obama left office, according to the House of Representatives appropriations committee.
Iranians have for years turned to dozens of VPN apps on mobile phones and computers to disguise their location in order to freely access social media and news sites blocked by the regime, such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the Telegram messaging app, plus opposition and pornographic websites.
Other sites, such as Instagram, are not restricted and are widely used. Meanwhile, a plethora of satellite television networks means Iranians have access to opposition channels.
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has resisted efforts by regime hardliners to increase internet restrictions since he came to power in 2013. But protests in November were met by internet outages on an unprecedented scale.
NetBlocks, an independent internet observatory, said Iran shut down internet and mobile phone networks for a week, hampering protesters’ ability to co-ordinate or access information. It reported targeted data disruption last week directed at a university campus where students chanted anti-regime slogans.
Iranians can access tools to download Psiphon, VPN services, encrypted messaging apps and news stories curated from 200 publishers through NetFreedom Pioneers, a California-based, Iran-focused non-profit group funded in part by the US government. It creates a daily data bundle that is hidden in a television programme beamed into Iran via satellite, which viewers download for use on their laptop without using the internet, evading detection and saving money.
The bundle includes podcasts, screenshots of news websites such as BBC Persian, Ted Talks and tools to help install secure messaging on mobile phones.
“We made the data package larger and included more [messaging] tools,” said Mehdi Yahyanejad, NetFreedom Pioneers’ co-founder, of efforts to help protesters sidestep internet controls. “Just by tuning into the channel they should receive our decoder app and be able to download it.” He said 4m Iranians had downloaded their data.
US officials and tech companies are also considering how to help thwart future shutdowns by boosting offline messaging tools, which can send messages via Bluetooth and peer-to-peer networks without an internet or mobile phone connection. Some have reported thousands of downloads of offline messaging apps since the November shutdown.
These require a heavy density of app users, which may not be feasible outside cities or in the event of a large-scale state crackdown.
“[Offline messaging tools] are certainly growing in popularity and more users are becoming aware of them,” said Fereidoon Bashar, executive director of ASL19, a Canadian technology company that supplies software to Iran.
The group’s services recorded a 50 per cent week-on-week increase in VPN downloads during last week’s protests, he said.
The US state department last year suspended funding to the Iran Disinformation Project, a group intended to counter Iranian propaganda but which instead targeted human rights activists and journalists who it deemed insufficiently hostile to the regime in Tehran.