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Rage Against the Regime: How Hacktivism is Empowering Iranian Protesters

Angela Suriyasenee | Cyber and Tech Fellow

Image Credit: Craig Melville

In Iran, civil unrest and disobedience continues as we reach the fourth month of anti-government protests.

Scores of predominantly youth and female-led protests have been triggered across 31 provinces, 160 cities and 143 universities, by the death of 22-year old Kurdish-Iranian woman Mahsa (Jina) Amini. Outrage erupted following Amini’s death in detainment by the Gasht e Ershad, or ‘morality police’, for not wearing her hijab in-line with the country’s strict dress code. Showing no signs of abating, these demonstrations may be the boldest challenge yet to a governing Iranian regime since the country’s 1979 Revolution. From the limited statistics available, 41% of the protestors are under the age of 20, stirring rage and resentment against the regime.

Only a month prior to Amini’s murder, a new presidential decree was announced, forbidding Iranian women from revealing their hair on social media. Wrongdoers were threatened with punishments ranging from fines, to dismissal from their workplace, to deprivation of social rights from six months to one year. These consequences include being banned from entering government offices, denial of entry into banks and use of public transportation. The regime has sought to ensure compliance through the use of facial recognition technology and digital surveillance of public spaces.

The regime has used internet censorship to maintain control of the situation. However protesters and global sympathisers are finding ways to evade these restrictions to share their plight with the world. Civilians are fighting back through hacktivism and electronic humanitarian support, highlighting the significance of cyber tools in empowering the Iranian people in their resistance.

Under its draconian User Protection Bill, the government has caused internet disruptions and blackouts which have notably spiked during demonstrations. The situation is worryingly reminiscent of the internet blackouts amid the 2019 protests, in which 1500 protestors were killed by government forces. Human rights observers have expressed concerns over a similar conclusion to the most recent demonstrations. The Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA), reported that at least 500 protestors have already been killed including 69 minors and an estimated 19,200 protestors have been detained by authorities.

In efforts to silence dissidents, authorities have severed the last lifeline to external and secure internet services by implementing its domestic intranet project. Mobile network curfews have been established and social media platforms have been disabled to limit communication and reporting of events to the international community. HRANA reports that internet speeds greatly decreased between 12pm to 4pm, with speed reduction doubling between 4pm to midnight, and complete shutdown of mobile internet during the latter period. Internet usage also diminished by 67%, while other sources report a 3000% influx in demand for, and downloading of Virtual Private Networks (VPNS). Furthermore, French company Eutelsat claims that the regime has intentionally jammed international satellites, with two of their own being impacted in October 2022.

Despite the regime’s brutality and intimidation, protestors have found means of staying connected and disseminating evidence of police brutality, through VPNs and other encrypted communications apps. Hacktivists and supporters from around the world have shown their solidarity by launching cyber-attacks on the regime and providing ‘electronic humanitarian aid’ in the form of censorship circumvention tools. Encrypted messaging platform Signal appealed to its global user base, providing instructions on how to set up proxy servers and VPNs to re-establish connections for the people of Iran.

Cyber vigilantes have thrown their hat in the ring, with one hacktivist group doxxing Amini’s arresting officers. Another leaked CT scans which allegedly show the head trauma that led to Amini’s death, challenging the regime’s narrative that it was a result of pre-existing health conditions.

Members of Anonymous have also launched DDoS-attacks on the regime and several of its ministries under the banner #OpIran. Another hacking group identifying themselves as The Black Reward also infiltrated Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, leaking 50GB of data along with sensitive information related to Iran’s Russian-backed nuclear power facility in Bushehr. Around the same time, hacktivist group Edalat-e Ali interrupted the state’s leading news channel with images of the child protestors killed, along with one of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, in crosshairs. In their message, Edalat-e Ali encouraged citizens to 'join us and rise up' against the regime.

With such heavy censorship, accurate reporting from the ground remains difficult yet ever-pressing. So far, four protestors have been executed, with reports from Agence France-Presse stating that at least 14 more people have been sentenced to death since the protests began. These executions have been called out as ‘open murder’ with the accused being denied fair legal processes and representation during 5-15 minute trials. Those arrested are not only subjected to unfair trial, rife with torture, sexual violence and forced confessions, but face capital punishment for crimes such as ‘enmity against God’ or ‘corruption on earth’.

These harsh sentences, while designed to intimidate and suppress the public, ultimately underscore the extent to which the regime fears its own people. Digital engineers, network administrators, and digital rights activists are among those most targeted with arbitrary arrests, indictments, and death penalties because of the potential threat they pose to the regime’s grip on the nation.

Iran’s leaders may be intimidated by the internet, but they also fear the retaliations of shutting it down. Cyberspace has somewhat levelled the playing field, and the resourcefulness of the protestors and their online allies demonstrates the power and potential of electronic civil disobedience. While the situation continues to unfold, the significance of cyberspace and digital tools cannot be understated in both the regime’s grasp for control, and the people’s rebellion, empowerment, and liberation.

Angela Suriyasenee is the Cyber and Tech Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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