Cultivating Digital Security Culture Change in Iran

Afsaneh Rigot

22 Mar 2016


Do you use the same password for all your accounts? Is your social media account providing all the incriminating data needed to prosecute you for your activism? Are you using store-bought VPNs that could be government owned?

Chances are, some Iranian activists in Iran would answer yes to at least one of these questions. For this reason, ARTICLE 19 has recently gathered personalities like musician Shahin Najafi, human rights lawyer Shadi Sadr, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran Ahmed Shaheed, Internet researcher Nariman Gharib, Amnesty International Technology and Human Rights adviser Tanya O’Carrol and many other prominent names in human rights and online security in Iran to provide digital security advice to Iran’s online activists in the Iropoly: The Computer Crimes Game video series.

These videos will provide you with the basic knowledge you need play your cards right and avoid risky online habits that may land you in jail. It only takes simple changes to online habits to foster this digital security culture change, and potentially safeguard your personal security.

The Context

Protest, dissent and expression of dissatisfaction with government are vital forms of expression in any evolving society, but are rights which many regimes look to curtail. Curtailment of these rights has increased rapidly in Iran, where voicing dissenting opinions online can lead to some of the regime’s heaviest sentences. For this reason, ARTICLE 19 has created tools to inform Iran’s Internet users on how they can remain safe online.

As Internet use has steadily increased in Iran, online activism has become a vital lifeline for dissenting voices, who were otherwise unable to voice their opinions openly offline without the fear of repercussions from the state. Between 2001 and 2009 (the year of the contested presidential elections), Internet usage increased by nearly 50% each year. Figures suggest that in 2014, there were more than 22 million Internet users in Iran, over 28 percent of the population. Social media also flourished during this period. Routinely accessed through the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and other circumvention tools, social media became a highly important method of getting your voice heard.

The Iranian government has caught up and made the Internet their new target. Censorship and surveillance are national priorities, in light of surging Internet usage. Their strategy took the shape of a range of sweeping new legislation and organs focused on monitoring cyber activity, policies, and practices. This uniformly falls outside the permitted limitations to freedom of expression and information according international human rights standards. Cyber activities conflicting with the regime’s norms have been criminalised, in breach of international standards, and with increasingly sophisticated technical capacities, enabling comprehensive blocking.

These surveillance mechanisms and institutional blocks have led to the arrests of many people in Iran, including Soheil Arabi, Atena Damei, and Mostafa Azizi.

Although under the administration of President Rouhani some efforts have been made to encourage Internet start-ups and technological innovation, arrests have also increased.

Several employees of the technology news website Narenji were arrested in 2013, and Internet entrepreneur and tech blogger Arash Zad was arrested in August 2015. The frequency of these events has been increasing, with new cases emerging every day, meaning that it is now even more important for Iranian citizens to take action and protect themselves.

Avoiding Risky Behaviour – Digital Security Video Series

Our recent report, Computer Crimes in Iran: Risky Online Behaviour looked to prepare those taking risks online, by highlighting common behaviours of Iranian Internet users that have led to arrests in the recent past. By interviewing twenty-three activists and two defectors from the Iranian security services, ARTICLE 19 was able to find the reasons behind arrests for online dissent. Drawing from the findings of this report, ARTICLE 19 has created the Iropoly Game to represent the risky moves activists face online. In the latest video series, Iropoly: The Computer Crimes Game, one of the biggest names in online security navigates through the Iropoly game and discusses these common risky behaviours and how they can be avoided. Explanations on topics such as how to use VPNs effectively, the importance of strong passwords, whether social media can be used safely, and an outline of encryption are given in the short videos. Check out the videos, spread the safety message, and win the game of online security!

The Iranian government is working hard to crack-down on free speech and new arrests are happening all the time. It’s more important than ever to address online security in Iran today. So stay informed and play your cards right when online.


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