Power and Politics: Iran’s Battle Against VPNs

Originally posted to the Iran Media Program website.

Over the past few weeks, the Iranian government has systematically disrupted Internet access across the country by blocking VPN ports. VPN, or virtual private networks, are one of the most popular circumvention tools that many Iranians use to bypass regime filtering and monitoring and to keep their online communications safe and private. With the presidential election only a few months away,  the decision comes at a particularly sensitive time. Some believe that restricting access to free flow of information is a tactic meant to crush anti-government sentiments, while others interpret this move as another step towards completing the implementation of Iran’s National Information Network (NIN) project. IMP and ASL19 take a closer look at these two plausible explanations.

 

VPN Blockade: Elections or National Information Network (NIN)?

Following confirmations from numerous VPN providers, Bahar News Agency reported on the Iranian authorities’ official blockade of VPN ports. Referring to the statement issued by the Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC), Bahar reported that it expected organizations using illegal VPNs to register for legal ones since the government had unexpectedly blocked unregistered and illegal VPN connections, leaving non-governmental entities with very little choice other than signing up for government-approved VPNs.

A number of government officials publicly addressed the issue: after receiving several user complaints about restricted Internet access, the Head of Iran’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Committee, Ramezanali Sobhani-Fard, announced that the problem was caused by the closure of VPN ports across the country, and admitted that the ICT Committee could have acted more responsibly by providing  information to users before enacting the protocols to block VPN ports. The Minister’s announcement, however, comes amid speculations that moving forward, the Iranian government likely will track VPN access and have grounds to bring criminal charges against those with illegal VPN access. Internet users who rely on popular circumvention tools such as Freegate, Ultrasurf, and Tor, have been hit especially hard by restricted VPN access.

Referring back to the Internet disruption during the 2009 presidential elections and subsequent protests, blocking VPN ports can be interpreted as a government strategy to limit Internet access to Iranian users in advance of the elections as a hedge against any civil disobedience. Small Media, for instance, made a prediction in early March that filtering  would increase in advance of the election, and the Jaras opposition website reports that the elections are the main thrust behind the closure of these ports.

However, ICT expert Mahmoud Tajali Mehr told Radio Zamaneh that the decision to block VPN ports is another step towards completing theNational Information Network, the government’s national project to limit online communications between Iran and other countries while allowing for more widespread surveillance of its users.

Conclusion

Regardless of the reasons behind the recent widespread blocking, it will have dramatic effects on the ability of Iranian Internet users to bypass filtering and the government’s ability to monitor online activity.  This decision not only affects everyday users of circumvention tools, but also banks and financial institutions that use VPNs for privacy and security reasons. Security, military, and other governmental organizations also use VPNs to communicate over secure connections with each other and with the outside world for various reasons, such as bypassing sanctions.

Perhaps recognizing that much of the Iranian financial and governmental apparatus depends on continued access to VPNs, the Iranian government has launched a campaign to get more organizations using ‘legal’ VPNs; using government sanctioned VPNs, however, enables the regime to monitor communications, invade users’ privacy, and find access to passwords and other private information, making this a very unattractive alternative for everyday use. The move to shut down private VPN ports across the country is a dramatic step backwards for online communication in Iran.