VPN use skyrockets in Iran as citizens navigate internet censorship under Tehran’s crackdown

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  • According to data from Top10VPN, demand for VPN services increased by more than 2,100% on September 22 compared to the previous 28 days.
  • Swiss startup Proton said it saw daily signups in its VPN service balloon peak 5,000% compared to average levels.
  • Iranians have faced “curfew-style” network disruptions for the past two and a half weeks following protests over the death of Mahsa Amini.

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Iranians are turning to virtual private networks to bypass widespread Internet disruptions as the government tries to hide its crackdown on mass protests.

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The outage first began hitting Iran’s telecommunications networks on September 19, and has been going on for the past two and a half weeks, according to data from internet monitoring companies Cloudflare and NetBlox.

Internet watchdog groups and digital rights activists say they are seeing “curfew-style” network disruptions every day, with access blocked from 4 p.m. local time until midnight.

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

As a result, Iranians have turned to VPNs, services that encrypt and reroute their traffic to a remote server elsewhere in the world, in order to hide their online activity. This has 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 increased by 2,164% compared to 28 days earlier, according to data from Top 10 VPNs, a VPN review and research site.

Top10VPN said that as of September 26, demand was 3,082% above average, and remains 1,991% above normal levels.

“Social media plays an important role in protests around the world,” Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN, told CNBC. “It allows protesters to organize and ensure that authorities cannot control the narrative and suppress evidence of human rights abuses.”

“The decision of the Iranian authorities to block access to these platforms has triggered protests, causing the demand for VPNs to skyrocket,” he said.

Demand is much higher than it was during the 2019 revolt, which was triggered by rising fuel prices and led to an almost total internet blackout for 12 days. At the time, peak demand was about 164% higher than normal, according to Migliano.

Nationwide protests over Iran’s strict Islamic dress code began on 16 September following the death of 22-year-old woman Mahsa Amini. Amini died under suspicious circumstances after being taken into custody – and reportedly killed – by Iran’s so-called “moral police” for wearing her hijab too loosely. Iranian officials denied any wrongdoing and claimed that Amini died of a heart attack.

At least 154 people have died in the protests. including children, according to the non-governmental group Iran Human Rights, The government has reported 41 deaths. Tehran has sought to stop sharing images of its action and disrupted communications aimed at organizing further demonstrations.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

Why VPNs are Popular in Iran

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

Russia saw a similar increase in demand for VPNs in March after Moscow tightened internet restrictions following the invasion of Ukraine.

Swiss startup Proton said it saw daily signups in its VPN service Balloon up 5,000% compared to the average level at the peak of Iran’s protests. 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 ProtonVPN,” Andy Yen, Proton CEO and founder, told CNBC. “Even before this, however, the use of VPNs in Iran is high due to fear of censorship and surveillance.”

“Historically, we have seen internet crackdowns in Iran during periods of unrest that have led to an increase in VPN use.”

According to Top10VPN the most popular VPN services during the protests in Iran have been Lantern, Mullvad and Psiphon, with ExpressVPN also seeing major growth. Some VPNs are free to use, while others require a monthly subscription.

no silver bullet

The use of VPNs in tightly restricted countries like Iran has not been without its challenges.

“Blocking the IP addresses of VPN servers is fairly easy for governance because they can be found fairly easily,” said Derrick Michelson, chief information security officer for the EMEA region at Check Point Software.

“For this reason you will find that open VPNs are only available for a short period of time before they are detected and blocked.”

Periodic Internet shutdowns in Iran “continue daily in a rolling curfew-style manner”, Netblox said in a blog post. The disruptions “affect connectivity at the network layer,” Netblocks said, meaning they are not easily resolved through the use of a VPN.

Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher with the free speech campaign group Article 19, said a contact she has been communicating with in Iran suggests that her network failed to connect to Google even though a VPN was installed.

“It’s the new sophisticated deep packet inspection technology that they developed to make the network extremely unreliable,” she said. Such technology allows Internet service providers and governments to monitor and block data on networks.

He said authorities are getting more aggressive in thwarting new VPN connections.

Yen said Proton has “anti-censorship technology” in its VPN software to “ensure connectivity even under challenging network conditions.”

VPNs aren’t the only technology citizens can use to bypass Internet censorship. Volunteers are installing so-called Snowflake proxy servers, or “proxies”, on their browsers to allow Iranians access to Tor – software that relays traffic through a worldwide “relay” network to intercept their activity. does the route.

“Along with VPNs, Iranians are also downloading Tor in significantly higher numbers than usual,” Yen said.

Meanwhile, encrypted messaging app Signal compiled a guide 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 where online access is restricted, maintain anonymity.

Credit: www.cnbc.com /

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