Iranian government's digital control tactics are a sophisticated form of repression, says researcher

When a new technology comes along, it's easy to see its liberating potential. But as current protests in Iran show, those same digital tools for organizing and communicating, can also be used for surveillance and suppression.

Arab Spring promised online democratization, but has the pendulum swung in the other direction?

 The backs of people in a demonstration holding Iranian flags of red, white and green and placards that say "BE OUR VOICE #MahsaAmini" and "WOMEN LIFE FREEDOM"
People in Halifax take part in a Global Day of Action rally in October 2022, in support of anti-government protests in Iran sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who had been detained by the morality police in Tehran. ( Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

Internet shutdowns in the ongoing anti-government protests in Iran are part of a growing trend in digital crackdowns against civilians by governments around the world, say researchers.

The Iranian government's techniques of digital control have gotten so sophisticated that, if you were in the country, you might not even notice it happening, human rights advocate Mani Mostofi tells Spark host Nora Young.

"For example, your Iranian version of Uber would still work. You could still check your bank account," he said. But popular international platforms like WhatsApp or Instagram would be completely inaccessible.

Mostofi, director of the Miaan Group — a U.S.-based organization that researches digital rights in Iran — has seen the Islamic Republic of Iran shift from broad shutdowns of the entire country's internet to precise, targeted blocking of access to mobile data in specific neighbourhoods where protests are planned.

A man, Mani Mostofi, looks directly at the camera. He is not smiling, and wearing a blue and red striped dress shirt against a beige wall.
Mani Mostofi, a long-time Iran human rights watcher, says the Islamic Republic has a long history as a repressive surveillance state. (Submitted by Mani Mostofi)

These tactics have been deployed at large scale in Iran since September 2022, when protests broke out across the country and around the world following Mahsa Amini's death in police custody, after she was accused of improperly wearing her hijab.

Activists have continued to look for ways to circumvent government blocking, using tools like virtual private networks (VPNs). But often, the government has shut down countermeasures as soon as they pop up.

Mostofi says that shortly after a popular VPN service was blocked, versions of the app containing spyware started showing up — planted, researchers suggest, by the government itself.

"This is the way it goes," said Mostofi. "People figure out one tool, [and then] Iran actually uses people's desperation to get tools that work to then entrap [them]."

Building a domestic internet

Mostofi says the recent shutdowns are part of a broader effort by Iran to essentially nationalize the internet, with domestic tech companies creating their own versions of everything from social media to chat apps to food delivery services. This makes the country less reliant on international networks and platforms — and makes it much easier for the government to surveille.

"Not only are they building a domestic infrastructure that basically meets their censorship standards," said Mostofi, "but also gives them access to user data and traffic patterns and things like this, because it's all localized within the country and there's very little resistance [from] internet service providers."

Recent reports suggest that Iran is also using AI-driven facial recognition technology to arrest protesters, or even women seen to be violating the country's dress laws.

"What we don't know is how often it's actually being used, or if this is sort of a psychological tactic to say, anywhere you go, they could be watching you," he said.

Dome security cameras (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"It's probably a little bit of both. Iran is a surveillance state and they've been a surveillance state for a long time, and they're very good at low-tech surveillance. So they don't necessarily need the most advanced technology to get to the ends that they want."

Iran is just the latest high-profile example of what Steven Feldstein, senior researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says is a growing trend of digital repression among governments around the world. 

In 2011, the Arab Spring saw millions take to the streets across the Arab world in anti-government protests, aided by social media. At the time, there was excitement about the new pro-democratic future those online tools would bring.

But Feldstein, author of The Rise of Digital Repression: How Technology is Reshaping Power, Politics and Resistance, has documented how governments have adapted in the face of those new tools with strategies like shutdowns, censorship, digital surveillance and disinformation.

A young man, Steven Feldstein, with short cropped brown hair and brown eyes is wearing a blue dress shirt and smiling. There is also the cover of his book, which is blue with a silhouette of a surveillance camera pointing down on a silhouette of a person holding up a sign. In the sign is the name of the book "The Rise of Digital Repression"
Steven Feldstein's book looks at how the emergence of advanced digital tools bring new dimensions to political repression. (Oxford University Press)

"Governments [got] wise to the fact that these information and communications technologies were real threats to their survival, and they started looking for ways to counteract that," he said.

And it's not just classically authoritarian governments. Feldstein notes that police use facial recognition technology in countries like Canada and the United States.

"You can look at the kind of 'usual suspects' you would think of — China, Russia, Iran and so forth are certainly very strong practitioners of this," said Feldstein. "[But] this is an issue that transcends political regimes."

Low overheads, big results

Feldstein says tools like machine learning can greatly simplify what used to be massive undertakings — and makes them far less obvious and intrusive.

"You look at the Stasi in East Germany in the past, and the million or so individuals who were part of the surveillance apparatus of the state, versus what China is able to do [today] with far [fewer] individuals," he said.

"And frankly, people may find it easier to tolerate something that's in the background that's watching them, as opposed to someone knocking on your door constantly and following you on the street."

Online disinformation campaigns have also put a new spin on age-old ideas of government propaganda.

"It's a much more present thing, as opposed to sort of hearing a droning Soviet TV program in the background or on the radio that you don't pay much attention to," said Feldstein. "This has a much greater ability to get people mobilized and involved."

A person is seen waving the Brazil flag.
A man waves Brazil's flag as supporters of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro demonstrate against President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, outside Brazil’s National Congress in Brasilia, Brazil, December 8, 2023. REUTERS/Adriano Machado (Adriano Machado/Reuters)

He points to the storming of the capitols in Brasilia and Washington, D.C., as prime examples of how effective these techniques can be.

"People don't just take it in," he said. "They get angry. It hits emotional buttons, and it causes them to actually do something … to buy into conspiracy theories and work with other coalitions to actually take concrete action."

An active battleground

While optimism about the democratizing power of communications technologies has waned in the decade since the Arab Spring, both Mostofi and Feldstein say the digital space is an important battleground between the state and its civilians.

For Feldstein, the most interesting countries to watch won't be the classically authoritarian regimes or the liberal democracies, but the ones somewhere in the middle.

"Places like India and Brazil and Turkey … are democratic but have authoritarian attributes, where you have strongman leaders who often resort to different tactics to rig elections or maintain power," he said.

"That's where you really will see an interesting struggle take place."

Meanwhile, in Iran, Mostofi says a vibrant community of activists is continuing to push back against encroaching government control of the internet — and they're not giving up anytime soon.

"It's hard to keep people offline," he said.