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How tech has influenced a year of demonstrations in Iran
Sep 15, 2023

How tech has influenced a year of demonstrations in Iran

Reza Ghazinouri and Shaghayegh Norouzi of the United for Iran activist group explain the role of apps in the continuing protests sparked by Mahsa Amini’s death in custody.

Saturday marks one year since the death of Mahsa Amini, the young woman who was arrested by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s “morality police” for allegedly violating its strict dress code for women. She died in custody.

Protests that started at Amini’s funeral quickly spread across the country.

Iranians have depended on messaging apps and social media to share information and try to stay safe. But staying connected hasn’t been easy, according to Shaghayegh Norouzi and Reza Ghazinouri with the U.S.-based nonprofit United for Iran.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke with Norouzi and Ghazinouri about the online resources United for Iran has developed and the technology used by activists across the country. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Reza Ghazinouri: The main way that [the] use of technology among activists and I’d say also the general population has changed is the number of circumvention tools everyone now have to have on their phone because in response to the massive protests last year, the regime pretty much reduced the quality of the internet. And we now see that their vision of isolating Iran’s internet from the world has been materialized to a higher degree. It’s a challenge for people to connect to the internet. And sometimes they have to test tens of different apps to find one that works.

Shaghayegh Norouzi: Also, I guess something [that became] more important during [the] last year, that is cybersecurity information. Because now, this is the main tool, one of the most important tools, that people inside the country are using to fight against regime. So now the information around cybersecurity, how they can find [cybersecurity tools] as well, as Reza mentioned, more updated apps and more updates, for example [virtual private network], this [has become] so much important these days.

Lily Jamali: What’s an example of a tool that your organization, United for Iran, has developed that has helped people participating in the uprising in Iran?

Ghazinouri: One was Gershad. It was an app that helps Iranian women detour morality police. It’s a crowdsource app, so other citizens have to report [the] location of morality police, when you want to go from point A to point B, you would see which road morality police stops, you should expect because they change locations frequently. And it was released seven, eight years ago. At that point, whenever you talked about mandatory hijab [laws] to people, like a lot of the feedback you would get from men mostly, unfortunately, was that they would refrain from engaging with the topic that was on the top of mind for a majority of women in Iran. But I think it was among a lot of other things and a lot of other work from wonderful activists. It was one of the things that showed the world and also turned mandatory hijab [laws] into a national dialogue in Iran. And you could see, like, how it became the core issue last year, when Mahsa Amini was murdered in detention.

Jamali: And Shaghayegh, over the last year, how have people on the ground in Iran been able to communicate with each other? Are they able to access apps like WhatsApp or Instagram, for example?

Norouzi: As I know, from the [contact] that I have with the people inside Iran, they are trying to use all these apps. Yes, the regime blocked the apps, put filter over them, but also people inside Iran tried to find different ways to access [them], to find access to these apps. They are using Instagram, they are using Twitter. For example, one thing about Gershad is not just the application, [Gershad also has] a very, very strong Twitter account. So if they cannot, if people cannot access the app, they will post and try to be connected to the people that are managing Gershad for finding some way to sharing the information.

Jamali: Speaking of specific apps that people on the ground in Iran are using, Signal is a popular one. It’s the encrypted messaging app. We recently had the president of Signal, Meredith Whittaker, on the show. A lot of protesters, as we say, have been using it there, but one pain point that you have talked about is that people can’t hide their phone number on the app. So we asked her about that, and here’s what she told us.

Meredith Whittaker: We should be launching usernames, which will allow people to hide their phone number when they communicate with each other, you know, and we’re going to take our time, we’re going to do it well and do it right. This is a pretty big systems overhaul. So we want to be careful, given the stakes. But we are looking at early 2024 at this point, and I’m optimistic because we’re farther down the road and things are looking close to complete at this point.

Jamali: So how helpful would an update like that be?

Ghazinouri: Extremely helpful. I think specifically the fact that people can’t hide their phone numbers currently has been the main pain point for a lot of activists, for also like for a lot of people in the general population because there is also a lot of risk associated with your lifestyle in countries [like] Iran because like, for example, a lot of Iranians drink alcohol and they have connections. And then even if you’re not an activist, who you love or what you drink can put you at risk.

Jamali: How hard has it been to keep up with changes that the regime in Iran has been making in real time over this past year when it comes to tech? I’ve heard it described as a game of whack-a-mole. Does that sound about right?

Ghazinouri: So generally, continuing to keep a product up and running is extremely challenging for nonprofits. Because generally, the grant model and the fundraising model that nonprofits function on is not designed for continuously updating products because you get a grant for a duration of time, for a year or so, you develop something, but the regime constantly changes its tactics. Even if that wasn’t the case, there are numerous new vulnerabilities found on the [operating system] level that you have to update your product to keep it safe and useful for the users. And that causes a situation in which your organization has zero resources to keep those projects updated. So in a lot of cases, it depends on the passion of, for example, software engineers in those organizations to work over time and voluntarily update those products, which is not a sustainable model, particularly for software engineers who work in this world. Things are already tough because they could be making two, three times the money they are making in the corporate world. They made a conscious choice to be in this world and continuously update products that have no funding available makes their lives even harder. And we have seen a lot of that in our organization too, of course.

More on this

You can learn more about United for Iran’s Gershad app and other tools and resources it provides to people in Iran. They include the Safe Activism project, which provides guidance on how activists can avoid arrest and what to do if they do end up in custody.

We’ve also posted a piece from earlier this year on how some Big Tech companies have responded to protests in Iran. Wired called the response muted and reported that workers inside those companies have asked their leadership to do more.

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Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
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