The Iranian government is now trying to block the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which provide a secure way of breaking through censorship filters on the internet. In an interview with Radio Zamaneh, telecommunications and internet expert Moahmoud Tajalimehr speaks about the Iranian government’s efforts to block VPN use as a part of its more general plan to create a closed internet space referred to as the “national Internet.”
A few months ago, the Iranian government began talk about the creation of a “National Internet” and now it is looking at blocking VPN use. Are these two goals actually part of the same project?
Mahmoud Tajalimmehr: Limiting VPNs is part of the National Internet project. The National Internet is basically an effort to restrict the international connections made by Iranian internet surfers using a series of defined channels that can be controlled by security bodies. Since VPN connections cannot be read or heard, control mechanisms do not work on them. In their control systems, security officials can only see that a secure connection has been established but they cannot access the content from that connection.
It appears that the government is trying to take complete control of the internet. Is such a thing possible?
For years, the government has been aiming for complete control of the internet and so far it has not succeeded. This is like a cat-and-mouse game; the government can find temporary means of imposing restrictions until a solution has been devised by users or by the opponents of censorship and oppression.
Despite all the restrictions that the government has tried to institute throughout the years, and relative to the heavy investment it has made to do so, it has not reaped very much success and by no means has it managed to block the free flow of information.
The basic and decisive way for complete control of the internet is to cut off the power grid.
Is it possible to block all VPN connections originating in Iran?
Technically, it is possible to block VPN connections. The channels that are used for VPNs are defined in telecommunications standards, and blocking those channels will cut off the connections, but each time, after a few days, the government has had to re-establish VPN connections.
The VPN technology is not just for overcoming government censorship practices. Connections between different companies, connections between bank branches inside Iran and other financial institutions, connections between military and security bodies and many other activities, the dealings of the government and its subsidiaries all need secure communication channels, which are provided by VPNs. More interesting is that the government itself needs VPNs in its efforts to circumvent international sanctions and to avoid Western surveillance efforts. The way I see it, blocking VPNs is impossible.
What is the "licensed VPN" that the government is now advertising, and can it be utilized by internet users who want to break the censorship barriers?
This is the most dangerous thing internet users can get themselves into. The government is asking users to apply for the so-called “licensed VPN” with a copy of their birth certificate. The government will register the identities of all the users who are looking for VPNs and then they will probably install software on the user’s computer, which is supposed to establish VPN connections. The software will connect the personal computers to computer systems of government bodies such as the Ministry of Intelligence, Cyber Police, the Revolutionary Guards intelligence and so on and it will also establish the secure channels. But since all of the user’s connections can be opened through the state security channels, they will be able to control and record everything. They can also use this software to basically spy inside the user’s computer, report every page that is opened, to turn on the microphone, the webcam and all sorts of things. Experience shows that Iranian security bodies will not refrain from any illegal or unethical actions. Therefore, the so-called “licensed VPNs” are a highly dangerous phenomena.
The other point regarding “licensed VPNs” is that someone might say ‘I am not doing anything illegal and I have no problem with the state wanting to check my activities’ and he or she might decide to get the VPN to carry out internet purchasing and banking transactions. But they must recognize that the one ingredient missing from the security organizations in Iran is, in effect, security. Many are there to collect information for personal use or to deliver it to organized criminal gangs. There have been instances where such information has been used for extortion or to make the private information of one company available to another. The issue is not just political security; private business and financial security will also become vulnerable with the use of these “licensed VPNs.”
Is there a way to defuse the latest actions of the Iranian regime?
Currently, many people are working on it. Even now that the VPNs are blocked, some channels still remain open, for instance for software that uses the N2N VPN. This software does not allow the control mechanisms to recognize the establishment of a secure connection, and many users are thus still very much present on the internet. We will publish all the possibilities once they are all compiled.
What is your recommendation to users in Iran as they try to access information?
We must find all the possible ways that allow the evasion of censorship blocks on the internet, such as the N2N VPN, and disseminate the information. We ask the users to provide their information to the experts and the anti-censorship media, so that we can provide them with a comprehensive list of solutions for overcoming the filtering efforts.
[translated from the original in Persian]