VPN Use Soars in Iran as Citizens Navigate Internet Censorship Under Tehran's Crackdown

VPN Use Soars in Iran as Citizens Navigate Internet Censorship Under Tehran’s Crackdown

Iranians are protesting to demand justice and highlight the death of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by morality police and later died in hospital in Tehran under suspicious circumstances.

Mike Kemp | In pictures via Getty Images

Iranians are turning to virtual private networks to circumvent widespread internet disruptions as the government tries to cover up its crackdown on mass protests.

The outages began affecting Iran’s telecommunications networks on September 19, according to data from internet monitoring firms Cloudflare and NetBlocks, and have been going on for two and a half weeks.

Internet monitoring groups and digital rights activists say they see “curfew-like” network disruptions every day, with access restricted from around 4 p.m. local time until late in the morning. night.

Tehran has blocked access to WhatsApp and Instagram, two of the last uncensored social media services in Iran. Twitter, FacebookYouTube and several other platforms have been banned for years.

As a result, Iranians have flocked to VPNs, services that encrypt and redirect their traffic to a remote server elsewhere in the world to conceal their online activity. This allowed them to restore connections to restricted websites and apps.

On September 22, a day after WhatsApp and Instagram were banned, demand for VPN services soared 2,164% from the previous 28 days, according to figures from Top10VPN, a review site and VPN research.

Iran shuts down internet as government cracks down on protests

On September 26, demand peaked at 3,082% above average, and it has remained high ever since, at 1,991% above normal levels, Top10VPN said.

“Social media is playing a crucial role in protests all over the world,” Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN, told CNBC. “It allows protesters to organize and ensure authorities cannot control the narrative and suppress evidence of human rights abuses.”

“The Iranian authorities’ decision to block access to these platforms as protests erupted caused demand for VPNs to skyrocket,” he added.

Demand is much higher than during the 2019 uprisings, which were triggered by rising fuel prices and led to a near-zero internet blackout for 12 days. At the time, peak demand was only about 164% above normal, according to Migliano.

Nationwide protests against Iran’s strict Islamic dress code began on September 16 after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Amini died in suspicious circumstances after being detained – and allegedly beaten – by Iran’s so-called ‘morality police’ for wearing her hijab too loosely. Iranian authorities denied any wrongdoing and claimed that Amini died of a heart attack.

At least 154 people have been killed in the protests, including children, according to the non-governmental group Iran Human Rights. The government has reported 41 deaths. Tehran has sought to prevent the sharing of images of its crackdown and to hamper communication aimed at staging further protests.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment.

Why VPNs are popular in Iran

VPNs are a common way for people under regimes with strict internet controls to access blocked services. In China, for example, they are often used as a workaround to restrictions on Western platforms blocked by Beijing, including Google, Facebook and Twitter. Local platforms like Tencent’s WeChat are extremely limited in terms of what users can say.

Russia saw a similar surge in VPN demand in March after Moscow tightened internet restrictions following the invasion of Ukraine.

Swiss startup Proton said it saw daily signups for its VPN service skyrocket by up to 5,000% during the height of protests in Iran compared to average levels. Proton is best known as the creator of ProtonMail, a popular privacy-focused email service.

“Since the murder of Mahsa Amini, we have seen a huge increase in demand for Proton VPN,” Andy Yen, CEO and Founder of Proton, told CNBC. “Even before that, however, VPN usage is high in Iran due to censorship and surveillance fears.”

“Historically, we have seen internet crackdowns during times of unrest in Iran, which has led to an increase in the use of VPNs.”

The most popular VPN services during the Iran protests were Lantern, Mullvad and Psiphon, according to Top10VPN, with ExpressVPN also seeing strong increases. Some VPNs are free, while others require a monthly subscription.

Not a quick fix

Using VPNs in tightly restricted countries like Iran has not been without its challenges.

“It’s quite easy for regimes to block VPN server IP addresses because they can be found quite easily,” said Deryck Mitchelson, field information security manager for EMEA at Check Point Software.

“For this reason, you will find that open VPNs are only available for a short time before being identified and blocked.”

Periodic internet blackouts in Iran “continued on a continuous daily basis, like a curfew,” NetBlocks said, in a blog post. The disruption “affects connectivity at the network layer,” NetBlocks said, meaning it’s not easily resolved through the use of VPNs.

Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher at free speech campaign group Article 19, said a contact she was communicating with in Iran showed her network was unable to connect to Google, despite installing a vpn.

“This is a new, fancy deep packet inspection technology that they developed to make the network extremely unreliable,” she said. This technology allows Internet service providers and governments to monitor and block data on a network.

Authorities are much more aggressive in seeking to thwart new VPN connections, she added.

Yen said Proton has “anti-censorship technologies” built into its VPN software to “ensure connectivity even in difficult network conditions.”

VPNs aren’t the only techniques citizens can use to circumvent internet censorship. Volunteers install Snowflake proxy servers, or “proxies,” on their browsers to allow Iranians to access Tor — software that routes traffic through a worldwide “relay” network to obfuscate their activity.

“In addition to VPNs, Iranians also downloaded Tor in much larger numbers than usual,” Yen said.

Meanwhile, encrypted messaging app Signal has compiled a guide on how Iranians can use proxies to bypass censorship and access the Signal app, which was blocked in Iran last year. Proxies serve a similar purpose to Tor, tunneling traffic through a community of computers to help users in countries with restricted online access maintain anonymity.

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