Iran’s large-scale internet blackout could have deadly consequences

CNN Business

When Iranian authorities shut down the internet amid anti-government protests in 2019, the international community struggled to monitor the civilian carnage that followed.

The people of Iran took to the streets to protest after the price of fuel rose by 300% overnight. The New York Times reported at the time that “between 180 and 450 people and possibly more” were killed, thousands injured and arrested during four days of violence, much of it while the country was plunged into digital darkness. Reuters reported that 1,500 people were killed during two weeks of unrest in December 2019.

Now, some troubling history may repeat itself amid civil unrest. Protesters have taken to the streets in recent days after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the Tehran moral police. Iranian officials claimed he suffered a heart attack, but his family said he had no prior heart disease. His father Amjad Amini told BBC Fars: “I don’t know what they did to him. “Everything is a lie.”

According to internet watchdog Netblocks, mobile networks are mostly shut down. And Meta confirmed that Iranians are having trouble accessing some of its apps, including WhatsApp and Instagram. While this may not be the complete internet shutdown of 2019, tech experts say they’re seeing a similar pattern.

“I don’t think there’s anything that would lead us to think it’s random,” said Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at network intelligence firm Kentik, Inc. “My understanding is that the purpose of the context is for people to share videos and communicate with the outside world.”

“The impact of these breaches cannot be overstated,” said Alp Toker, director of Netblocks. Netblocks earlier this week he said The people of Iran are now subject to “the most severe internet restrictions since the massacre of November 2019”.

Toker said that losing internet connectivity has become “a central fear etched into the minds of Iranians, especially after 2019.” “One of the most disturbing things about the data blackout is that we don’t even have an accurate death toll,” he said. “Because what happens, in terms of human rights abuses, abuses of power are more difficult to document, collect and record.”

Human rights groups say at least eight people have died in the protests so far and are calling on the international community, and especially the tech sector, to do more to support the Iranian people. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on Friday announced steps the U.S. government is taking to remove some of the red tape associated with sanctions and help American tech firms use digital tools for the Iranian people.

“(W)e will help the Iranian people not to remain isolated and in the dark,” Blinken said. “This is a concrete step to provide meaningful support to Iranians who demand the observance of their basic rights.”

Time can be of the essence. While the current internet outage is “not as severe as November 2019,” Madory said, there are concerns that it could eventually be. “It’s too early — it’s too early to know if it’s going to be overcome.”

Amir Rashidi, director of digital rights and security at the human rights organization Miaan Group, runs a resource center to help those dealing with internet shutdowns in Iran. Rashidi, a software developer who fled Iran more than a decade ago, said he and his team help provide Iranians in the country with technology tools, risk analysis guidelines and training so they can stay connected even when the internet goes out. Government.

According to him, Iranian officials are now following a familiar playbook. “First,” he said, “they block cellular data, and it’s complicated enough to block even in a certain neighborhood.” If the protests continue to grow, he said, “then they start gradually expanding the shutdown of the Internet.” Eventually, he said, “it’s a complete shutdown and they’re shutting everything down.”

But as it stands now, options are limited when it comes to internet service outages.

Dozens of people protested the death of a 22-year-old woman in Tehran on September 21, 2022.

“Until now, they’ve been blocking cellular data and making it really difficult to work with a landline connected to the home,” Rashidi told CNN Business. “They’re very slow, they’re very regimented, so it’s hard to work on a landline.”

As Madory puts it: “If you don’t have any cellular service, cellular data on your phone, you don’t want it to exist.”

Netblocks’ Toker said that the methods of restricting and throttling the internet are so varied that using more sophisticated tools to remove the throttling becomes even more difficult. For those who still have a landline connection, “a VPN or Tor can be useful,” Toker added. “Although these are also restricted by the authorities, so they are far from reliable.”

“The only real option in a total blackout is to document things offline, hoping to timestamp them and distribute them when you’re back online as evidence of, say, human rights abuses,” Toker said.

Some are now calling on the tech industry to do more to help.

For example, there is the meta-owned WhatsApp he said it will “do everything within our technical capabilities to keep our service up and running.” Rashidi praised Meta for being “helpful” but called on international technology companies and organizations to do more to reach out directly to the Iranian people and help them get their rights.

Encrypted messaging app Signal is asking for the public’s help in setting up a “proxy server in Iran that will allow people to connect to Signal” during outages.

Rashidi also criticized billionaire Elon Musk, who recently tweeted that he would like to see satellite broadband service Starlink exempted from sanctions to provide internet in the country. “I know what’s real and what’s not, and I don’t think Elon Musk is serious,” Rashidi said.

Despite the fear that currently grips his homeland amid protests and internet outages, Rashidi sees reason for hope. She feels the spirit of these “women-led” protests is different from past riots.

“I’m seeing more people coming together,” he said. “Whatever the outcome of these protests is, we are moving to a new page in Iran.”

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