VPN usage skyrockets in Iran as citizens navigate internet censorship

Iranians are protesting to demand justice and highlight the death of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by the morality police and later died in a Tehran hospital under suspicious circumstances.

Mike Kemp | In Images via Getty Images

Iranians are turning to virtual private networks to bypass widespread internet outages as the government tries to hide its crackdown on mass protests.

The outages began hitting Iran’s telecommunications networks on September 19, according to data from internet monitoring firms Cloudflare and NetBlocks, and have continued for the past two and a half weeks.

Internet watchdog groups and digital rights activists say they are seeing “curfew-style” network outages every day, with access restricted from around 4pm local time until well into the evening.

Tehran has blocked access to WhatsApp and Instagram, two of the last remaining uncensored social media services in Iran. Twitter, FacebookYouTube and many other platforms have been banned for years.

As a result, Iranians have flocked to VPNs, services that encrypt and reroute their traffic to a remote server elsewhere in the world to hide their online activity. This allowed them to restore connections to restricted websites and apps.

On September 22, a day after WhatsApp and Instagram were banned, demand for VPN services soared 2,164% compared to 28 days before, according to data from Top10VPN, a VPN review and research site.

By September 26, demand peaked at 3,082% above average and has continued to remain high since then, at 1,991% above normal levels, Top10VPN said.

“Social media plays a critical role in protests around the world,” Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN, told CNBC. “It allows protesters to organize and ensure that the authorities cannot control the narrative and suppress evidence of human rights abuses.”

“The Iranian authorities’ decision to block access to these platforms as protests erupted has caused demand for VPNs to increase,” he added.

Demand is much higher than during the 2019 riots, which were sparked by rising fuel prices and led to a near-total internet blackout for 12 days. At the time, peak demand was only about 164% higher than usual, according to Migliano.

Nationwide protests over Iran’s strict Islamic dress code began on September 16 following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Amini died under suspicious circumstances after she was arrested – and allegedly beaten – by Iran’s so-called “morality police” for wearing her hijab too loosely. Iranian authorities denied any wrongdoing and claimed Amini died of a heart attack.

At least 154 people have been killed in the protests, including children, according to the non-governmental organization Iran Human Rights. The government has reported 41 deaths. Tehran has sought to prevent the release of images from its crackdown and to block communication with the aim of organizing further protests.

Iran’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

Why VPNs are popular in Iran

VPNs are a common way of accessing blocked services for people under regimes with strict internet controls. In China, for example, they are often used as a workaround for restrictions on Western platforms blocked by Beijing, including Google, Facebook and Twitter. Homegrown platforms like Tencent’s WeChat are extremely limited in what they can say from users.

Russia saw a similar surge in demand for VPNs in March after Moscow tightened internet restrictions following the invasion of Ukraine.

Swiss startup Proton said it saw daily subscriptions to its VPN service balloon by up to 5,000% at the height of the protests in Iran compared to average levels. Proton is best known as the creator of ProtonMail, a popular privacy-focused email service.

“Since the assassination of Mahsa Amini, we’ve seen a huge increase in demand for Proton VPN,” Proton CEO and founder Andy Yen told CNBC. “Even before that, however, VPN usage is high in Iran due to censorship and surveillance fears.”

“Historically, we have seen internet crackdowns during periods of unrest in Iran that have led to an increase in VPN use.”

The most popular VPN services during the Iran protests were Lantern, Mullvad and Psiphon, according to Top10VPN, with ExpressVPN also seeing big increases. Some VPNs are free to use, while others require a monthly subscription.

Not a silver bullet

Using VPNs in highly restricted countries like Iran has not been without its challenges.

“It’s quite easy for regimes to block the IP addresses of VPN servers as they can be found quite easily,” said Deryck Mitchelson, field information security manager for EMEA at Check Point Software.

“For this reason you will find that open VPNs are only available for a short time before they are detected and blocked.”

Periodic internet blackouts in Iran “continue daily in a rolling blackout fashion,” NetBlocks said in a blog post. The outage “affects connectivity at the network layer,” NetBlocks said, meaning they are not easily resolved through the use of a VPN.

Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher at the free speech campaign group Article 19, said a contact he was in touch with in Iran indicated that his network failed to connect to Google despite having a VPN installed.

“This is new sophisticated deep packet inspection technology that they have developed to make the network extremely unreliable,” he said. This technology allows ISPs and governments to monitor and block data on a network.

Authorities are much more aggressive in trying to block new VPN connections, he added.

Yen said Proton has “anti-censorship technologies” built into its VPN software to “ensure connectivity even under difficult network conditions”.

VPNs aren’t the only techniques citizens can use to bypass internet censorship. Volunteers install so-called Snowflake or “proxy” servers on their browsers to allow Iranians access to Tor – software that routes traffic through a “relay” network around the world to obfuscate their activity.

“In addition to VPNs, Iranians also downloaded Tor in significantly higher numbers than usual,” Yen said.

Meanwhile, encrypted messaging app Signal has put together a guide on how Iranians can use proxies to bypass censorship and access the Signal app, which was blocked in Iran last year. Proxies serve a similar purpose to Tor, routing traffic through a community of computers to help users in countries where online access is restricted maintain anonymity.

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