While tensions in Syria dominate headlines about the Middle East, a quiet digital battle is brewing in Iran as the June 14 presidential election approaches.
Yesterday, the Basij force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard claimed its websites were being targeted in a wave of cyberattacks:
“Due to the impending vote, elements of the global arrogance have launched a new round of cyberattacks against Basij websites, particularly Basij.ir.”
According to local Iranian news sources, the Basij.ir site was down for part of the day on Wednesday (May 1) and a spokesman for the group claimed its sites faced many attacks in the past three years. However, the Basij is more well known for being the aggressors in cyberattacks. In 2011 it launched a cyberattack against the “enemies” of Iran and has actively recruited hackers to boost its ranks.
Iran had over 8 million internet users in 2009 and online communications including social media and email was key to galvanizing and organizing opposition in the last Iranian Presidential election and the protests that followed. Since then, the regime has cracked down harder than ever on online communications with aggressive surveillance and filtering in what President Obama decried as an “Electronic Curtain” in 2012. Internet access was disrupted before the 2012 parliamentary elections and at other times Iranian authorities have blocked specific web services, such as Google.
While the regime cracked down on tools like virtual private networks (VPNs) many Iranians use to avoid government internet controls in March, hacktivists outside the country are helping provide alternatives to further keep online communications channels open. One group, ASL19 — an interdisciplinary lab named after Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that upholds the right to freedom of expression and access to information — specifically aims to “empower Iranians to communicate freely and engage in dialogue with minimal threat to personal safety.” The group reportedly helps a million Iranians a day avoid network censorship by distributing open source evasion program Psiphon.
But the regime has even been working on an internal intranet, often dubbed the “halalternet” that would be completely closed off from the larger global internet system, and is reportedly very close to being deployed on a broad scale. Chinese technology company Huawei reportedly provided the Iranian government the technological infrastructure for the intranet, and according to Reuters, attempted to sell Iranian internet providers “lawful interception” surveillance tech that they later “acquired.”