This week has seen a marked increase in the blocking and filtering of certain kinds of Internet traffic in Iran. The Iranian government has not openly acknowledged these new measures, but they are widely thought to be preliminary steps towards a nation-wide Halal Internet that would cut off a majority of citizens from the global web and replace it with one that would effectively block all foreign sites and only allow state-controlled content to e accessed within Iran.
Starting February 7th, Internet users in Iran began reporting that they were having difficulty reaching certain websites outside of the country using HTTPS, the secure, encrypted version of the HTTP protocol used to transfer the data you see in your web browser. Many websites, including banks, many Google services, Twitter, Facebook, and Microsoft Hotmail, employ HTTPS to protect their users’ private data from eavesdropping and government surveillance. Some services, such as Gmail, use HTTPS across the board by default, but others such as Facebook, require users to choose “HTTPS by default” as a privacy setting in their profile.
This has led to some Iranians to suggest turning off HTTPS encryption in order to get access to the services they use every day. Iran Media Research quotes two allegedly Iranian users who say:
“To access Google search without needing to use a VPN, [you] can sign out from your [Gmail] account. With this method Google is available”.
“Those users who have disabled Gmail’s SSL [HTTPS] can use it without any problems.”
This is dangerous advice that can expose Iranian users to government surveillance of their email and other private data. Iran has a long history of Internet surveillance, including deep packet inspection of Internet traffic. Bloggers and activists face the possibility of intimidation, arrest, and torture. Now that the Iranian government as put up these barriers to safe, secure, private communication, it is more important than ever that Iranian Internet users take steps to protect themselves from government surveillance.
These steps include using proxies, VPS, or Tor to circumvent government censorship. Tor reports that the majority of Tor users in Iran are still able to use the service to access websites that are blocked within Iran, but they are working on solutions assuming that the government will eventually expand their censorship program to block all HTTPS connections outside of the country.