Iran’s Parliamentary Elections: Internet Surveillance For Security

Nine months prior to Iran’s parliamentary elections, to be held on February and March of 2016, the Interior Ministry has announced the launch of an “Internet Surveillance” operation against “enemy acts of sabotage” to ensure security for the upcoming elections.

Deputy Interior Minister Hossein Zolfaghari pointed out that the Police, Ministry of Intelligence and the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) now have the responsibility to carry out “Internet Surveillance” in the country. Referencing the recent protests in Mahabad a result of foreigners spreading false information on Internet and instigating protests, he added, “It is necessary to consider Internet surveillance as a means to ensure security during the elections”. The ministry is also thinking of drafting a list of keywords they believe might be “misused by foreign media” in the upcoming elections. This list will be distributed to relevant agencies to take necessary actions, which he is presumably referring to enlisting ISPs’ help to implement further Internet censorship using these keywords in the lead up to the elections.

Zolfaghari said that the ministry has formed an Election Security Task Force comprised of representatives from Armed Forces General Staff, National Army, IRGC, Police, Ministry of Intelligence and the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). According to Zolfaghari, the Interior Ministry has put together a “Security Atlas” to “manage the vulnerabilities and drawbacks” of holding the elections.

Event Based Information Controls

Since the events surrounding the post-2009 Presidential elections, Internet controls in Iran have intensified and constantly adjusted to control the flow of information around politically sensitive events. Making elections a period of increased Internet censorship and surveillance in Iran. Instead of reacting to the role Internet and social media played during the 2009 protests (Facebook and Twitter were both accessible at the time), the Iranian government has adopted a proactive approach to control the flow of information, especially during elections through network interference and reducing connection speeds to limit access and spread of information. The 2013 Presidential elections are a good example of how Iran implemented network interference and deep packet inspection, targeting circumvention tools and limiting access to information at key points during the electoral process. In fact, shortly after the elections, the ICT Minister publicly acknowledged and took responsibility for network interference for the first time, as a deliberate action to ensure security during elections. The ministry had previously denied playing any role in network disruptions.

Two months before the same presidential elections, Zolfaghari’s predecessor stated that “the Police will be monitoring the cyberspace and adversary satellite networks in order to have the intelligence preparations to hold a secure election”. However, in this instance, the ministry is making preparations well in advance of elections through a large operation of civil and military institutions, with the purpose of ensuring security through Internet surveillance. Zofaghari has also stated that this national taskforce will oversee the creation of individual operations for each province in the upcoming months.