Analysis Iran Cyberspace: Hiding Identity and Resistance

Iran Cyberspace: Hiding Identity and Resistance

While Khamenei talks about "freedom of expression" and making a gibe at "western" countries, Iranians have to hide their identities so they don't end up in FATA's or intelligence agencies' custody, in jail, tortured or even dead

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Does anybody know who Gohar Eshghi is? How about the significance of November 3, 2012? These are iconic for Iranian dissents. Dissents who are oppressed so brutally that they are scared to death to use their real identities online. This is a very brief article on why Islamic Republic opposition has to hide their identities on Twitter, Instagram, Telegram, Facebook,… accounts! An excuse used by Islamic Republic and its propaganda machine, such as NIAC, to call them “bots” and try to discredit the message, a classic case of “ad hominem.”

On August 14, 2017, Assistant Attorney General said, “Membership in blocked social media websites is a crime.” He even mentioned if the country’s officials are using those platforms, they’re violating the law and should stop doing so. I guess Abdul Samad Khorramabadi didn’t know almost all officials, including the “Supreme Leader”, president, foreign minister, other cabinet members, all local officials,… and state-owned media, including IRIB,… use Twitter and Telegram, but ordinary citizens get punished for the same use. Here are some examples for Twitter and Telegram use leading to the arrest and imprisonment of citizen reporters and opposition activists.

Ordinary citizens have to use VPNs and proxies to access Twitter and Telegram, increasing the risk of account limitations, while officials such as ICT Minister have access to uncensored internet at all times.

Twitter:

The most recent Twitter activist arrested on April 26 by intelligence agents is Ashraf Nafari! She was interrogated and then taken to Qarchak prison. After a few days, she was released on a hefty bail.

April 28, Mehdi Mahmoudian was summoned to court after his response to a tweet from Javan newspaper editor-in-chief, Abdullah Ganji! Ganji had said, “US COVID-19 casualties is due to wrath of God.”

Naser Hemmati, a physician from Isfahan, was arrested by intelligence agents on December 25, 2019 because of his message on Twitter inviting others to attend 40th day of November 2019 victims. He’s kept, tortured and imprisoned in an unknown location!

Soheil Arabi, a 36-year-old political activist, has been in prison since 2013 and will be released in 2025 just because of his criticism of the system. His story could be published as a book series!

Telegram:

April 13, 2020, Shahram Safari, a reporter from Kermanshah and admin of a channel, was summoned due to his news about number of COVID-19 victims. Saeid Ahmadi was arrested on April 4, by intelligence agents in Kermanshah under the same assumption. They’ve both been charged with “spreading rumors and disruption of public opinions”.

Mehdi Ameri was summoned to court because he reported on water being cut off repeatedly in Sharoud, Semnan. The officials filed a suit against him, he is sentenced to 19 months in prison!

February 13, 2020, Semnan FATA officers arrested a Telegram channel admin for “insulting officials”.

As it is obvious, it’s not just dissents but even journalists are not spared if they criticize the regime and its leadership.

How does the regime identify account holders?

The opposition members with hidden identities are targeted by regime’s intelligence agencies, mainly IRGC and MOIS. Ammar Cyber Camp, Seraj Cyberspace Organization and other cyber groups are part of the mission. They’re known as “Cyberi” among the activists. Here I’ll mention a few of the methods they use to identify account holders revealing how cruel, merciless and brutal the regime really is.

A political prisoner is pressured to work for the regime using his/her social media accounts or give access to his/her account to the intelligence agents and they would be operating the account after his/her release! These are called “Parastoo”.

Cyberis create many accounts with different identities, fake and real looking names,… They would pretend to be the opposition, infiltrate the groups and chats. Even one dissent trusting the cyber mole would be enough for them. Some personal information such as first name, city, siblings, career, ….is exchanged leading to identification of the person. He/she is blackmailed being doxed and so he/she would be forced to cooperate with them and give them information on other members of the group, and this cycle goes on!

Another method Cyberis use is social engineering! They would create accounts with sexy pictures and send DMs to the dissents’ opposite sex trying to make them get in touch by emailing or clicking on phishing links. Or posting tweets like: “What is the best scene from outside your window?”, “What is your astrological sign?”, “What is the name of your first teacher?”,.. which all could be used to identify or hack into an account.

The Ammarion (as they call themselves) would also try identifying accounts by guessing the telephone number attached to anaccount. If somebody clicks on “Forgot Password?” they would be able to see the last 2 digits of the phone number. Together with other info such as the city, they could trace it back to the account holder. Therefore, many Iranians who reside inside the country do not have a phone number attached to their accounts, causing Twitter to suspend accounts more frequently or assume they’re “bots”. Using VPN services and proxies doesn’t help either.

Another way is targeted reporting of a single account. A campaign would be launched to report an influential account and because of the above-mentioned flaws, the Twitter would think the account is not real, suspends the account and limiting the regime’s opposition even further!

Some may wonder what about activists outside the country. There are two categories! Some are pretend-opposition in order to make a rift among different groups by making up stories or sparking a fight based on nothing but speculations. The real ones would be threatened by pressuring their families who live inside the country. For instance, Mohammad Mozaffari whose family were pressured so much that had to eventually deactivate his account! The same happened to Mamadou Babaei, a political activist who got pressured into closing his Twitter account, but he has resisted so far. They were both in custody of IRGC intelligence when lived in Iran and been subjected to physical and psychological tortures.

One of the Islamic Republic’s goals is to scare off the resistance groups by making all of their results public, or increase mistrust among dissents. However, it has backfired so far. Revelations by different activists, like Mamadou, have caused more and more activists become wary of the environment.

This is a small portion of a brutality against online activists. While Khamenei talks about “freedom of expression” and making a gibe at “western” countries, Iranians have to hide their identities so they don’t end up in FATA’s or intelligence agencies’ custody, in jail, tortured or even dead.

Sattar Beheshti, a 35-year-old blogger, has become one of the heroes for Iranian bloggers and social media activists. He was writing a very simple blog with less than 30 viewers when he got arrested by FATA (Islamic Republic’s Cyber Police) on October 30, 2012. He sent out a letter stating he was beaten by FATA and if anything happens to him, it’s police fault. His mom, Gohar Eshghi, received a call on Novemner 6, 2012 that Sattar had passed away on November 3 while in custody. The outrage and pressure from international organizations after the news broke, only led to firing of Tehran’s FATA chief and that was it! Gohar Eshghi has become a symbol of bravery and courage against Islamic Republic and especially, Khamenei, after resisting all the pressures and threats from intelligence agencies. She’s even called “Mother of Iran” or “Our Mother” by some activists.


Cover: Rostyslav Savchyn

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