The state of surveillance in Iran’s cyberspace

Tehran, Iran (IFEX) – Iranian Internet users and Iranian authorities remain deeply divided over the place of the Internet in Iranian society and whether it can be a place to voice criticism of politicians, or a place to discuss subjects thought to be taboo. As the number of people using various online platforms increases, authorities continue to meet them with stringent restrictions, such as new censorship tools and new laws. The continuous evolution and complexity of Iran’s internet censorship system is crippling not only civil society, but regular citizens who are unaware of the moving redlines and restrictions.

The recent arrest of Mostafa Azizi, an Iranian, who had travelled to Iran in January, is said by human rights groups to be another case typifying this continued divide. Mr. Azizi, who was a producer behind some of Iran’s most popular game shows and a prolific screenwriter, was arrested in early February and charged with insulting Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, insulting the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and threatening Iran’s national security in cyberspace. His children have stated in interviews that they suspect the arrest and charges were due to comments and posts he made on Facebook, also noting that this is likely an indication that the government is monitoringsocial media posts.

Some human rights and media groups following his case have connected Mr. Azizi’s arrest to that of Sattar Beheshti(2012), the Narenji Group (2013), Sasan Jannatian, Siavash Jannatian, and Reza Alenasser (2014), Moslem Booshehrian (2014), and Mohammad Yousefi (2015), all of whom have been incarcerated and charged for their activities online. Although it has not been confirmed that Mr. Azizi’s arrest was a result of project “Ankaboot” or project Spider, a surveillance operation believed to have been launched in the fall of 2014 to identify and root out Facebook pages and activities that spread “corruption” and western-inspired lifestyles, human rights groups and media have stated that his arrest follows a similar pattern of those arrested under this operation.

Operation Ankaboot was acknowledged by officials on January 31st, 2015, when the IRGC Center for Investigation of Organised Cyber Crimes, a subsidiary of the IRGC Cyber Defense Command, put out a press release to inform the public about the shutting down of 130 Facebook pages, the arrest of 12 and detainment of 24 individuals.

Beyond anecdotal evidence, documenting and confirming evidence of surveillance and monitoring of social media has proved difficult. However, at times, officials have publicly stated that they are actively monitoring Iranian citizens’ activities on both blocked and unblocked websites and platforms. For instance, in September of 2014, The Chief of Iran’s Cyber Police(FATA),warned the public about FATA’s ability to monitor messaging applications such as Viber and Whatsapp. This announcement was made subsequent to the arrest of a number of Viber users who were targeted based on the exchange of “inappropriate content.” While not offering conclusive evidence of surveillance, public statements by officials acknowledging surveillance activities does work to perpetuate concern, if not fear over whether the government’s activities and capacity to monitor online activity, in particular social media.

"Iran in its region" by TUBS -

“Iran in its region” by TUBS –

Arrests such as that of Mr. Azizi’s and others before him are raising concerns and speculation over whether Iran has acquired new or significant technical improvement to track and identify individuals and the content they produce. Following the press release announcing Operation Ankaboot, Mostafa Alizadeh, a cyber expert with the IRGC explained that the IRGC can monitor all social networks, and those who have deemed these platforms a safe place should reconsider, as they are being watched. However, from a technical perspective, the possibility of this level of surveillance and scale of probing remains unverifiable, and although the arrests of Mostafa Azizi and others have been associated with this operation, no substantial links can be identified with the Ankaboot project.

Witten by Arta Shams for Article 19. Arta Shams is a Toronto based explorer of the unfolding of the digital age in Iran. She is interested how societies relate to technology. Currently, Arta is looking at how social media is taking root and evolving amongst Iranian users.