Iranians Complain of Fake Accounts Created in Their Names on State-Approved Soroush App
Tech Experts Urge Rouhani to Stop Stifling of Internet in Iran
Several Iranians posted screenshots on their social media accounts May 26-May 29, 2018, stating that accounts in their names had been created without their consent on the Iran-based, state-approved messaging app, Soroush.
In response to the complaints, Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi told reporters on May 30, “The National Cyberspace Center is investigating uncertainties regarding non-voluntary memberships created on the Soroush messenger.”
Iranian users reported the fake accounts following a request from Soroush’s CEO Meysam Sayedsalehi asking the government to help the app become “a portal for 10 million users.”
On April 30, Iran banned the foreign-owned Telegram messaging app, which was used by a reported 40 million people in the country. The judicial order came after months of the Iranian government pressuring Telegram to move its servers to Iran as well as encouraging citizens to use domestic, state-approved apps.
The internet is heavily censored and monitored in Iran, with millions of websites blocked along with widely used foreign apps such as Facebook and Twitter banned. By virtue of having their servers inside Iran, the data contained in domestic-made apps, including personal communications, is vulnerable to state surveillance.
The telecommunications minister recently reported that Telegram users in Iran were back on the rise just weeks after the app was banned. Domestic app companies are meanwhile complaining that the government is not giving them enough support.
On May 22, the conservative news site Entekhab quoted a speech by Sayedsalehi at Al-Zahra University in Tehran where he said, “[The telecommunications] minister claims he has given bandwidth to domestic apps. What good is it for me to have bandwidth? How much bandwidth do I need? What I need is a portal of users. If you are serious about breaking that great big monopoly, then do something so I can have those 10 million users Telegram used to have in the country.”
Sayedsalehi later denied the report and threatened to sue Entekhab but on May 23, the site posted a video of him making the statement.
Without access to its servers and codes, it is impossible for outside parties to determine whether the false accounts were created on Soroush due to a technical problem or whether they were set up manually to boost the app’s membership. To date, there has been no independent audit of the security and privacy features of Soroush.
Theories have meanwhile been swirling among Iranian social media users that Soroush intentionally created the fake accounts.
Software engineer Mehdi Ranjbar tweeted on May 24: “I don’t even know what the Soroush logo looks like but a friend of mine sent this screenshot that shows I’m a member of Soroush and that I’m currently online!”
E-commerce activist Abbas Malek-Hosseini tweeted on May 29 that the fake account in his name on Soroush showed that his last activity on the app took place before the 1979 revolution, before the internet was introduced in Iran. “It’s obvious that the data has been inserted at random. Where can I complain about this?” he wrote.
BBC Persian Service reporter Rana Rahimpour also revealed on her Twitter account on May 29 that a number of accounts and channels falsely representing the BBC had been created on Soroush.
“These accounts are fake,” she wrote. “BBC Persian is not active on this messaging service.”
BBC Persian has been banned in Iran since 2009.
Despite the allegations, on May 28 Sayedsalehi denied the existence of false accounts on Soroush.
“All the users on Soroush are real and the existence of any account without the person’s knowledge is in no way possible,” he tweeted. “The only way to activate an account is to provide a phone number and enter the activation code. Users have to enter their mobile phone number into the app and then they will receive a text with an activation code.”
Tech Experts Write to Rouhani
On May 27, following the Information and Communications Technology Ministry’s efforts to block online censorship circumvention tools, dozens of Iranian tech experts wrote an open letter to President Hassan Rouhani stating that the move “taken by the judiciary and the government are causing severe disillusionment among the young generation of tech experts and entrepreneurs.”
These tools, such as virtual private networks (VPNs), are heavily used in Iran by users who wish to access censored apps or content or who wish to hide their personal information from state agencies.
The ministry’s attempts to block the circumvention tools have not been completely successful but have created widespread disruptions of internet service in Iran.
The authors of the letter noted a number of technical problems caused by the restrictions imposed on the circumvention tools, and wrote: “The wave of concern, which began when the judiciary ordered the closure of public access to Telegram, has turned into a general blockage of internet communication protocols and caused serious disruptions in many types of online services. This situation has disrupted our daily activities as it has had a very severe negative impact on our work and ability to make a living.”
Ata Khalighi, co-founder of Persian Blog, one of the first blogging services in Iran, tweeted on May 26: “I swear to religion, to the prophet, to Jesus, to anyone you worship… you cannot work with this internet. Who can we talk to about this? How should we say this? We are wasting a lot of energy and time and expenses on this situation every day.”