Why is the Iranian Government Aiding the Development of a Censorship Circumvention Tool?
Using Iranian government resources, a Tehran-based company has been developing an online censorship circumvention tool that specifically enables users in the country to access a widely used app that was blocked nationwide by judicial order one year ago, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has learned.
The proxy called MTProto, enables users to access the blocked Telegram messaging app, which remains the principal means of digital communication in the country even though it has been officially banned. It’s unclear how safe MTProto is or why the Iranian government is supporting its development.
However, in a recent interview, Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi said he is focused on finding ways to “manage” the growing use of circumvention tools in Iran.
“There are numerous ways to circumvent [state-imposed] filters [on online content],” Jahromi told the state-funded IT new agency, ITNA, on April 3, 2019.
“If we do not improve the management of the demand [for circumvention tools], every Iranian will find his or her own particular way to gain access [to blocked websites and apps],” he added. “Then you will be faced with 80 million different paths. How are you going to manage that situation?”
MTProto was initially created as an open source app by the Telegram company.
Open source apps make their code available for use or modification by other developers.
MTProto is now being developed and distributed in Iran by the same Tehran-based company, Rahkar Sarzamin Houshmand, which translates to Smart Land Solutions (SLS), that developed clones of the Telegram messaging app before the original app was banned in Iran.
After Telegram was banned, several rights organizations, as well as Google and the Telegram company itself, warned users that the SLS-made Telegram client apps, Telegram Talaeii and Hotgram, were “unsafe” due to their lack of digital security features and the Iranian government’s ability to access private user data stored on the company’s servers.
Now that same company—using the technical infrastructure of Iran’s Ministry of Information and Communications Technology—has been developing and disseminating the MTProto proxy in Iran.
Proxy servers like MTProto require many internet protocols (IP) addresses to function.
According to CHRI’s investigations, hundreds of IP addresses located on servers belonging to Iran’s Telecommunications Infrastructure Company, which operates under the Telecommunications Ministry, are registered to the SLS company and are being used for MTProto.
But average users of MTProto in Iran, who are simply seeking an online censorship circumvention tool, have no way of knowing that the tool has links to the Iranian government or if it’s safe to use.
Iran’s Ministry of Information and Communications Technology has not made any official comment about MTProto. But if the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology helps increase the usage of MTProto in Iran, as it appears poised to do, the tool could potentially further endanger the privacy and security of some 30 million Telegram subscribers in the country.
“When you are trying to build a dam,” Jahromi said in his April 2019 interview, “you have to carry out studies to measure the water pressure behind the dam. If someone says ‘the dam you are building is not going to resist the water pressure,’ he’s not a counter-revolutionary; he’s just expressing his own technical understanding.”
He added: “You have to build the dam at the right place with a bypass. It would take time. You have to inform the surrounding people and evacuate the region, buy the land and then tell the people that they have the right to use the water. People can’t wake up one morning and see a completed dam. As the telecommunications minister, I have to make logical technical decisions.”