Internet Cut-Off During Recent Unrest in Iran Reveals Tehran’s New Cyber Capabilities and Threats

The recent unrest in Iran-during which the authorities disrupted Iranians’ access to the internet and blocked major social media networks used by the protesters-demonstrates that the Iranian government’s decade-long effort to control the internet in Iran is being realized.

In a major new report released today, Guards at the Gate: The Expanding State Control Over the Internet in Iran, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) details the advances the Iranian government has made in controlling cyberspace in Iran, and the resulting losses to internet freedom and privacy.

The 76-page report provides a comprehensive review of Iran’s internet policies and initiatives, in particular, the development and new capabilities of Iran’s state-controlled National Internet Network (NIN), which gives the government newly expanded abilities to control Iranians’ access to the internet and monitor online communications.

“The Iranian government has now shown the world that it can- and will – cut its citizens off from the global internet, in total disregard for the rights of the Iranian people. Iran is grouping itself among the autocracies of the world by violating its people’s rights to internet freedom and privacy. Governments worldwide should express their deep concern over these violations directly to their Iranian counterparts,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of CHRI.

According to the key findings of Guards at the Gate, the NIN enables the authorities to separate domestic internet traffic from international internet traffic, allowing the state to cut Iranians off from the global internet while maintaining access to state-approved domestic sites and services on the NIN.

“The government demonstrated this capability for the first time in December 2017 as unrest broke out around the country: The authorities disrupted internet access through slowdowns and the blocking of circumvention tools on December 29—and briefly cut-off internet access on December 30 while domestic NIN traffic continued unhindered—in addition to blocking the Instagram social media site and the Telegram messaging app used by the protesters.”

Without any judicial oversight, Iran’s NIN can be used by state security agencies to identify users and hack into private accounts. The stakes are especially high when it comes to internet security: many Iranians serve long prison sentences for online communications disapproved of by the state. State-sponsored DDoS attacks, phishing, malware, and message interception have all increased during Rouhani’s tenure.

“The NIN also allows the state to more effectively filter and manipulate online content. Iran’s national search engines now automatically block keywords and phrases and send users to sites that deliver state-approved and sometimes fabricated content,” the reports says.

The state steers Iranians towards the NIN and its services—such as national search engines, email and video services—by making it cheaper and faster to use than the global internet, violating net neutrality principles. President Rouhani, while publicly stating support for internet freedom, has increased internet filtering, accelerated development of the NIN, and during his tenure millions of websites continue to be blocked and major social media platforms remain banned—even as his administration has expanded internet use in Iran by making it faster and cheaper, and on occasion has reversed the blocking of some messaging apps.

“Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has consolidated control over Iran’s internet policies and development of the country’s telecommunications infrastructure under hardline organizations and security agencies that are under his authority and which view internet freedom as a threat, in a significant institutional shift that will profoundly harm internet access and privacy in Iran,” it adds.