Iran protests, one year on—is technology more of an oppressor or liberator?

 A woman with an Iranian flag painted on her cheek and flase tears of blood raises her fist during a solidarity march for Mahsa Amini's death in Toulouse (France) December 3rd 2022.
A woman with an Iranian flag painted on her cheek and flase tears of blood raises her fist during a solidarity march for Mahsa Amini's death in Toulouse (France) December 3rd 2022.

Brave faced, sure footed, unveiled. That's certainly how the whole world will remember Iranian women and girls after a long year of protests fueled by the death of Mahsa Jhina Amini. The 22-year-old woman was killed by the hands of Iran's morality police on September 16, 2022. Her alleged fault: not wearing the mandatory hijab.

By waving their headscarves, dancing and singing on the streets, Iranians challenged the Islamic Republic on its most contentious matters and called for greater womens rights—and it wasn't without consequences. Over 500 got killed and many injured during the rallies, with security forces reportedly shooting at the faces and genitals of female protesters. At least seven men have already been executed so far, and others are at risk of the death penalty (including a 19-year-old man) for taking part in the protests. Many more were arrested in subsequent months for promoting propaganda against the regime, including Amini's lawyer who's facing charges in court at the time of writing.

Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have been a vital hub to quickly grab international attention to what's now known as the Woman, Life, Freedom movement. A wave of solidarity demonstrations have spread outside the country's borders, in fact, with new rallies set to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Amini's death this week.

The world is finally watching. Nonetheless, the Iranian government has no intention to back down just yet. Mahsa Amini's memory still haunts the regime—and, as the anniversary of her death approaches, authorities are doubling down.

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Arbitrary arrests, snap checkpoints and enhanced protection around government buildings seems set to be the groundwork across the streets of Iran. Strict online surveillance, internet throttling and shutdowns reportedly are how such measures will reverberate in the online world.

UK-based internet watchdog NetBlocks confirmed a series of internet disruptions starting on September 8. These probably come with the intent of hindering the preparation of new mass rallies inside the country. It follows months of regular internet blackouts during Friday prayers which made Iran infamous as the biggest perpetrator of internet shutdowns in 2023 so far.

Citizens have been turning to VPN services en masse to bypass restrictions and keep posting the brave actions of those challenging the regime. At the same time, Iran also boosted its online surveillance tech capabilities to strengthen its grip on people. Now, after one year of restless fighting, where does technology stand? Is this more of a tool for empowering or repressing citizens?

Building a movement

"We [women] are invisible in Iran. If we don't cover ourselves, we don't exist. But through my social media, people took their visibility back. Social media is like my weapon because we don’t have freedom of expression in Iran."

Iranian political journalist and women's right activist Masih Alinejad used these words to describe her work after being nominated 2023 Woman of the Year by Time magazine last March. Exiled from the country since 2009, Alinejad was the first to harvest the power of Facebook in 2014 to give a voice to ordinary women in Iran fed up with compulsory Hijab rules. How? Simply by inviting women to post a picture of themselves without the contentious veil.

The My Stealthy Freedom page grew quickly, soon becoming the largest civil disobedience campaign to challenge mandatory hijab laws in the Islamic Republic. Alinejad kept promoting new social campaigns in the form of hashtags across all the major platforms, including #MyFobiddenVoice (inviting women to sing in public—something which is illegal by law), #MenInHijab, #MyCameraIsMyWeapon and #WhiteWednesdays.

The latter, which called for women to wear white shawls or no veil at all on Wednesdays, grew into a bigger resistance movement by late 2017. From screens, the fight jumped directly into the streets. International attention started to gain momentum, too.

Azam Jangrevi, Information Security Analyst and women’s rights advocate, joined the Girls of Revolution Street movement in 2018. Following the footsteps of Vida Movahed, known as the First Girl of Enghelab Street, she climbed an electricity transformer box and waved her headscarf to the sky. After being arrested and put in solitary confinement for 10 days, she managed to flee Iran for Canada during her temporary release and escaped a three years sentence for "promoting indecency and wilfully breaking Islamic law."

Jangrevi experienced in first person the power of a movement born from behind social media feeds, paying the consequences for daring to keep the fight up across the streets. Yet, she feels much has changed since then.

Jangrevi told TechRadar: "When I protested against mandatory hijab, the number of people who joined me was small. Although, many sympathized with us, we were alone and a collective movement did not form. However, since last year, a collective movement has emerged. The general attitude of society and the world towards women's rights in Iran has changed since then."

The hashtags #MahsaAmini and its Persian version broke a historic record in the first week of protests after being retweeted more than 40 million times. That's about 10 times more than the trendiest hashtags on Twitter. #WomanLifeFreedom, #IranProtests and #IranRevolution are still widely used in and out of the country to keep giving visibility to the movement.

Tech as a tool of control

The Woman, Life, Freedom movement marked a historic time for Iran. The illiberal laws and harsh punishments that both Iranian women and political prisoners endure are a taboo no more. The world is talking about these issues. Citizens aren't afraid of challenging those in power. Yet, Iran's government keeps working hard to squash these efforts as much as it can.

"In Iran, women’s rights are severely restricted, and female activists are not safe. They can be easily arrested, and many of their rights can be taken away from them. For instance, they can be banned from leaving the country, lose custody of their children, have their driver’s license revoked, or lose their job," explained Jangravi.

So far, the Islamic Republic has had a pretty careless attitude towards growing international pressure. Over the last 12 months, there have actually been a surge of reports about the closure of public spaces or offices amid the "identification of women not adhering to hijab regulations within their premises," reported Jangravi for human rights advocacy group, Article19.

From AI, CCTV cameras and facial recognition technologies, to social media tracking and mobile spying systems: authorities have been increasingly using different tools and technologies to intimidate, persecute and punish women and other dissidents. "They have purchased advanced cameras and software technologies for surveillance purposes. They also have different cyber groups that use various methods to hack activists, such as phishing email campaigns that hack activists to access their information," Jangravi told TechRadar.

A new, draconian proposed law known as "Hijab and Chastity Bill" is now sparking new fears. Currently being considered in Parliament, the 70-article bill seeks to introduce new ways to identify transgressors and punish them with up to 10 years in prison for defying the country's mandatory veil. According to Jangravi, this proposed law also opens up even more concerns over privacy violations and state surveillance. "If the authorities have the ability to recognize faces, women may be exposed to more dangers and threats," she said.

Iran's government does not use technology for the sole purpose of spying on citizens. Authorities know very well the internet is the main battlefield which needs to be controlled. A space that empowers citizens to get together and organize actions, but it also ensures the flow of information can reach outside the country's borders.

VPN provider Surfshark counted a total of 46 internet disruptions since 2015. Among these, 35 were related to protests and many of them were enforced following last year's unrests. From internet throttling, blackouts of mobile data and restrictions of all the major social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Telegram and WhatsApp), Iranians living in the Zahedan region have regularly been kept in the dark every Friday during prayers ever since.

Iran VPN downloads skyrocketed as a result. A virtual private network is, in fact, a security software that both encrypts internet connections and spoofs people's IP address locations. The latter ability is exactly what's needed to bypass online censorship and keep accessing social media platforms despite blocks. At the same time, Iran's government has also been working hard to heavily restrict the use of this precious tool. It earned a silver medal in VPN censorship this year, placing itself right after the infamous Great Firewall of China.

"Iran has invested a lot in filtering international secure messengers and created domestic media messages that are insecure and through which they have access to people’s data," explained Jangarvi. "To help people inside Iran, we need to provide safe VPNs, which requires global assistance."

That's exactly what New Iran, a subreddit group born following the 2022 protests, seeks to achieve. Its creators launched a crowdfunding project at the start of the year for both offering free VPN access and funding Starlink terminals across Iranian territories. Another non-profit organization composed by lawyers and IT specialists, Free Internet for Iran aims to train Iranians on how to circumvent online restrictions and secure their digital activities. Since January, VPN company TorGuard is actively backing up their efforts.

Digital technologies: threat or opportunity?

Technology has been a focal component, characterizing the fight inside Iran during these last long 12 months. From one side, citizens have increasingly used their smartphones strategically to challenge repressive laws and let the world know what life under the Islamic Republic is really like. On the other side, the government has refined their software and digital tactics to spy and suppress its citizens.

Talking on this point, Jangravi told us: "While digital technologies in all societies have the potential to improve life through access to information and services, in Iran it is a threat to people’s privacy and security. For example, last week a hacker group called GhostSec breached 20GB of data, including source code, relating to face recognition and motion detection systems from Iranian software company Fanap."

The Woman, Life, Freedom movement marked a historic time for Iran...The world is talking about these issues. Citizens aren't afraid of challenging those in power. Yet, Iran's government keeps working hard to squash squash these efforts as much as it can.

This is a sentiment shared by some internet users from inside the country, too. Many lamented how the already-poor internet quality dropped and government's control intensified over the last year.

Despite these risks, other users think the internet is a vital resource nonetheless. "Overall the existence of the internet has been in favor of protestors, without a shred of doubt," an anonymous respondent on Reddit told us. "Despite all that hardship, Iranians are still finding ways to connect and new VPN services emerge."

Jangravi shared with us some tips to keep in mind for the coming days. "My most important advice to people is to use secure VPNs. Additionally, they [people inside Iran] should set complex passwords for their accounts that are at least eight characters long and activate two-step verification for all their accounts. If they participate in protests, they should delete all information on their phones because there is a possibility of arrest. Lastly, it’s essential not to click on suspicious links."

Less than three days away from the first anniversary of Mahsa Amini's death, Iran's government looks determined to keep pursuing its crackdown, made up of violence, intimidations and persecutions. So are Iranians, though, who are willing to keep fighting, both online and offline, in the name of better civil rights and freedom.