Online Security: Who needs it?

Online Security: Who needs it? - Digital

Jon Favreau, Barack Obama's chief speechwriter during the campaign for the presidency. He is pictured on the night of the Democratic primary election in New Hampshire, at work on Obama's speech on his laptop computer, BlackBerry at hand.

“Why is it important to address online security in Iran today?” asked a friend of ARTICLE 19.

Let’s start here:

November 2012, Iran: Iranian blogger Satar Beheshti dies in police detention. His crime: online dissent.

Beheshti started out by running a small blog with fewer than 30 followers called “My Life for My Iran”. His critical blog talked of the “Slaughterhouse” that the Iranian judicial system had become, a blog for which he had received numerous threats from the Iranian authorities. Beheshti was later picked up by Iran’s cyber-police, Fata, for “actions against national security on social networks and Facebook.” The ‘slaughterhouse’ failed to protect him from torture and inhumane treatment by his interrogator, leading to his untimely death. Beheshti was 34 years old.

Remembering Beheshti’s story and the many others that endure harassment and torture for their peaceful online activity and protest, the importance of focus on security of online activists in Iran becomes clear. The question becomes more ‘how can we help protect future Beheshtis’?

In the same year as Behesti’s death, ARTICLE 19 released a legal analysis of Iran’s Computer Crimes law, followed by the Online Repression in Practice report. The findings and cases which have emerged since those publications demonstrate the institutionalised status of the repression and the threats which online users face. Faced with so many legal reprisals, as well as threats to their physical safety, it has become vital to target Iranian activists themselves, and to prepare them in providing for their own online safety.

The War on the Internet

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 opinion online can lead to some of the regime’s heaviest sentences.

In a country where internet use has steadily increased over the years, online activism has become a vital lifeline. Between 2001 and 2009 – the year of the contested presidential elections – internet usage increased by nearly half every 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, becoming a highly important method of getting your voice heard, though routinely used through the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and other circumventions tools.

The Iranian government eventually waged war on the Internet, making censorship and surveillance a national priority.  This war took the shape of a bewilderingly sweeping range of new legislation, policies, and practices: uniformly falling 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 sophisticated and comprehensive blocking.

Furthermore, legislation like the Computer Crime Law (2010) constitute vaguely-worded catch-all laws allowing the repression of online expression. Organs such as the Iranian Cyber Police (FATA) and Iranian internet-repressing entities — ‘cybersquads’ — such as the Revolutionary Guards Cyber Defence Command were established, funded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). In 2011, groups such as the so-called ‘Iranian Cyber Army’ made news when they reportedly hijacked the media outlets Voice of America and the BBC, demonstrating their technological abilities.

Just this year, Operation Ankaboot was made public, when the IRGC Center for Investigation of Organised Cyber Crimes put out a press release to inform the public about the shutting down of 130 Facebook pages, the arrest of 12 and detainment of 24 individuals.

Advancing online battle operations in March 2012, Supreme Leader Khamenei founded the Supreme Council on Cyberspace (SCC), to oversee the use of and regulate the internet in Iran. The list of new measures is extensive.

As Collin Anderson, Iran internet security expert notes in ARTICLE 19’s latest ‘Computer Crimes in Iran- Risky Online Behaviour’ report, “arrests of online activists are increasingly accompanied by televised confessions and declarations by the authorities stating that ‘those who think this space is safe for them must cease their activities’ (February 2015), ‘people should know we can read their messages’ (September 2014), and ‘we will definitely identify these people and deal with them’ (May 2014).”

These surveillance mechanisms and institutional blocks have led to the arrest of numerous people in Iran. Soheil Arabi was handed a commuted sentence of ninety-days imprisonment and reading of 13 religious books and studying theology for two years, accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammad on Facebook, along with a separate seven-and-a-half-year sentence for allegedly insulting the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Atena Damei, awaits sentence for numerous charges, including for uploading videos on her Facebook page. Mostafa Azizi is awaiting the outcome of the appeal of his sentence, based on comments he made on social media.

2013, 2014 and 2015 saw the more advanced stages of this operation. Although, under the administration of President Rouhani, some efforts have been made to encourage the internet startups and technological innovation, arrests have also increased.

The arrest of employees of a technology website, Narenji, in 2013, who were later charged with cooperating with “foreign networks”, was telling of the arbitrary turn the Iranian authorities had taken, with new efforts to control the internet, and its increasing number of technology innovators. A prime example is the arrest of Arash Zad in August of this year. Zad, one of Iran’s most prominent internet entrepreneurs, has been arbitrarily detained, held without charge, without access to legal counsel, and in an unknown location. The frequency of these events has been increasing, with new cases emerging, meaning that it is now up to Iranian citizens to take action, and protect themselves.

Avoiding Risky Behaviour

Our recent report, Computer Crimes in Iran: Risky Online Behaviour looks to prepare those taking risks online, by highlighting behaviours of Iranian online users which have led to their arrest in the recent past. Interviewing 23 activists and 2 defectors from the Iranian security services, ARTICLE 19 was able to find the root causes of arrests for online dissent.

The report looks to provide recommendations for a range of actors, including activists, technical experts, private companies, and the Iranian government, in order to protect and enforce the right to free expression in Iran. It is still difficult to determine whether Iran’s online community has made real progress in safeguarding its own digital security, but we can ensure we prepare and support them.

It only takes simple changes to online habits to foster online culture change, and potential safeguard your personal security.

 This list of arrestees is rapidly growing. This is why it’s imperative to address online security in Iran today.