ASL 19 director Ali Bangi (left) and head of research Mahsa Alimardani, via Alimardani.
One front in the battle for freedom of expression online is Iran, where cyberspace, like the rest of the country, is tightly controlled by the state. As Iran clamps down on web access ahead of the June presidential elections, a group of University of Toronto researchers, called ASL 19, is playing a cat-and-mouse game with the country's Orwellian network of Internet police and its Supreme Council of Cyberspace, which wants to transition the entire country to its own, state-controlled intranet.
ASL 19 distributes open source software called Psiphon, which allows roughly one million Iranians a day to get around the government’s web filters. But the regime is ramping up its onslaught of censorship and intimidation. The government was caught unaware when social media became a tool for the green movement’s insurrection in 2009, but now they have had four years to prepare, and the angry mullahs are just getting started.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace took its biggest step to date in March, when it started to block virtual private networks. Psiphon's popularity shot up after the blockade, as more Iranians began using its secure shell protocol to bypass web filters.
ASL 19's job is to unsettle
Citizen Lab has been fighting the good fight since 2001. It landed on the front page of the New York Times in 2010, when it hacked the people who hacked the Dalai Lama’s personal email account. The same cyber espionage gang, called the Shadow Network, stole reports on Indian missile systems, and the movement of NATO forces in Afghanistan.
ASL 19 was founded two years ago, and is more focused on freedom fighting than spy hunting. The group is named for Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the right to freedom of expression and access to information.
For all appearances, they are a set of young, smooth mannered and hiply dressed academics. Their job is to unsettle authoritarian governments, and they do so from the turret of a former observatory on the University of Toronto’s ivied campus.
After the government blocked VPNs, ASL 19 was left to wonder why the Supreme Council was rolling out its technology so far in advance of the elections, giving groups like theirs a chance to get around the filters.
Iran's efforts to develop an intranet have also been aimed at isolating its research facilities from cyberattacks.
Fereidoon Bashar, ASL 19’s “anti-censorship trafficker,” says he thinks the Iranian government is still playing around with their software to see how it works. For example, based on high-speed levels in different regions, Bashar could see the blockade on VPNs was implemented in tiers. His guess is the government wants to improve its systems, so it can block everything at once after the elections.
Another possibility is the series of measures the government has taken so far is just the pre-game show.
“Maybe they haven’t played their best card yet, maybe their ace is about to come,” said Ali Bangi, the head of ASL 19. “This is just one of their tricks.”
The regime’s “ace” could be blocking the Internet completely, like it did in 2009. Worse, it could introduce the Supreme Leader’s pet project: the national information network. The Internet-e Paak, which translates from Farsi to the “Pure” Internet, would be a bowdlerized version of the web, similar to Kwangmyong, the nation-wide intranet in North Korea.
By moving control of the Internet from the office of the president to the highest level of power, the Supreme Leader militarized the policing of cyberspace.
The enclosed network is a mega project the regime has been working on for several years. In March 2012, Ayatollah Khamenei centralized management of the country’s Internet policies under the Supreme Council of Cyberspace. The other areas under direct control of the Supreme Leader are terrorism and national security.
By moving control of the Internet from the office of the president to the highest level of power, the Supreme Leader militarized the policing of cyberspace. The agency is responsible for transitioning to a national intranet, which, officials say will be “compatible with religious and revolutionary values,” and “free from immoral, corrupt, and violent content.”
ASL 19 has been carefully tracking development of the national information network. Head of research Mahsa Alimardani says there are rumors the government might launch Internet-e Paak during the elections, rather than shut down the Internet completely. If Iran did so, the loss of the web would be immediately felt. For one thing, the country’s banking system and all of the government ministries rely on the Internet.
“If they shut it off, it’s to their disadvantage, not only to civil society movements,” said Alimardani. “The national information network is a way to safeguard that aspect of the Internet.”
In addition to providing ways for Iranians to get around censors, ASL 19 monitors the Iranian government’s efforts to restrict free speech, including their attempts to muzzle members of the media.
Recently, there has been plenty to report. The arrest of 18 journalists this year, labeled “spies” and “puppets of the arrogant powers,” has fed a climate of fear in Iran, and encouraged self-censorship. This goes to show that even with the technological advances in quashing free speech, intimidation is still the best way to silence dissent.
The death of Sattar Beheshti at the end of last year made Iranian bloggers and journalists more reluctant to pass information out of the country. In November, Iran’s cybercrimes unit, called FATA, arrested the little-known blogger for “actions against national security on social networks and Facebook.” He died in prison days later.
Beheshti was the only blogger in Iran to criticize the government under his own name. “Neither the whip nor torture can frighten us or prevent us from informing others,” he wrote in his last post before he died. “My life given for Iran!”
Sattar Beheshti's mother speaks about his death (subtitled).
The details around his death are murky. The government called it an accident, and offered up the head of FATA as a scapegoat.
“Whether this was planned, this is something you never know,” said Bashar. “But did it scare people? I think it did. Was it used after to promote censorship? I think it was.”
Beheshti’s story shows the Iranian authorities’ mastery of spin. The government not only stopped Beheshti from becoming a martyr, they used his death as a tool for the oppression he gave his life to protest.
At first people didn’t pay much attention to the death of a small-time blogger, says Nikahang Kowsar, a political cartoonist who runs the Persian citizen journalism website Khodnevis.org out of Washington, D.C. But when it came out that Beheshti was working for foreign news outlets, it scared other journalists in Iran.
Kowsar escaped Iran in 2003, after receiving death threats over a cartoon he drew of an Ayatollah shown as a crocodile strangling a journalist with his tail. Before he left, he felt increasingly threatened, as he watched his friends and colleagues arrested in Soviet-style night raids. One time he was in a taxi when he noticed two men tailing him on motorcycles. When they hit a traffic jam, he jumped out of the cab and ran.
“In Iran whenever you see someone with a walkie talkie following you, there is a 50-50 chance of getting arrested, or being beaten up,” said Kowsar.
Kowsar doesn’t think there will be demonstrations in June like the ones we saw four years ago. The crackdown on web access has made organizing opposition next to impossible.
He applied to leave the country under the pretense that he was going to give a speech criticizing the United States at a cartoonist’s convention. The conference was staged, but the Iranian authorities liked the subject, and let him go. Six days later the Judiciary came to his house to arrest him. After he arrived in North America, he found out from a friend that members of the Basij, the regime’s paramilitary militia, had beaten his mother twice, and on one occasion hit her with a motorcycle.
Scare tactics like these, in addition to more sophisticated Internet surveillance, have made it hard for the international media to get information from on the ground, says Kowsar. Recently, the government has been getting better at monitoring the online activity of journalists in the country. This was apparent after the last round of arrests, when interrogators showed the imprisoned journalists screen grabs of conversations they had had with their colleagues in Europe and North America.
Kowsar says his sources have found ways to send information in the face of ramped up controls. A lot of his contacts are students, and have secure connections through their universities. But Khodnevis.org has suffered from heightened Internet surveillance in another way. It has been targeted with repeated distributed denial of service attacks by hackers over the last two years, making the site, at times, inaccessible.
Kowsar doesn’t think there will be demonstrations in June like the ones we saw four years ago. The crackdown on web access has made organizing opposition next to impossible. According to Bangi, the regime has engineered the elections so people will show up, vote, and then go sit in the park with their families.
But Iranians still want change, maybe more now than in 2009. The one million people that ASL 19 helps to get online everyday are evidence that the citizens of Iran refuse to be cut off from the rest of the world.
“There is a time bomb over there,” said Kowsar, “and we don’t know when it will explode.”