VPN use skyrocketing in Iran as citizens navigate internet censorship

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

Mike Kemp | Pictures via Getty Images

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

Outages first began hitting Iranian telecoms networks on September 19, according to data from internet monitoring firms Cloudflare and NetBlocks, and have been ongoing for the past two and a half weeks.

Internet watchdog groups and digital rights activists say they see “curfew-style” disruptions to the network every day, with access being throttled from around 4pm local time until late at night.

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

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

On September 22, the day after WhatsApp and Instagram were banned, demand for VPN services rose by 2,164% compared to the previous 28 days, according to figures from Top10VPN, a VPN research and review site.

By September 26, demand peaked at 3.082% above average, and has remained high ever since, at 1.991% above normal levels, according to Top10VPN.

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

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He added that “the Iranian authorities’ decision to block access to these platforms with the outbreak of protests led to an increase in the demand for virtual private networks.”

Demand is much higher than it was during Uprisings 2019, which was caused by high fuel prices and led to a near-total internet outage for 12 days. At the time, peak demand was only about 164% higher than normal, according to Migliano.

Countrywide protests against Iran’s strict Islamic dress code began on September 16 after the death of Mehsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman. Amini died under suspicious circumstances after she was arrested – and allegedly beaten – by Iran’s so-called “moral police” for wearing the hijab too loosely. The Iranian authorities denied any wrongdoing and claimed that Amini died of a heart attack.

At least 154 people were killed in the protests, Among them are children, according to the Iranian human rights NGO. The government has reported 41 deaths. Tehran has sought to prevent the sharing of images of its crackdown and block communications aimed at organizing further demonstrations.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

Why are VPNs popular in Iran

VPNs are a common way for people under regimes with strict internet controls to access blocked services. In China, for example, it is often used as an alternative to restrictions on Western platforms that Beijing bans, including The Googleand Facebook and Twitter. Local platforms like Tencent’s WeChat are very limited in terms of what can be said by users.

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Russia experienced a Similar rise in demand to VPNs in March after Moscow tightened internet restrictions in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.

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

“Since the murder of Mahsa Amini, we’ve seen a huge surge in demand for Proton VPN,” Andy Yen, CEO and founder of Proton, told CNBC. “Even before that, though, VPN usage was high in Iran due to censorship and surveillance concerns.”

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

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

Not a silver bullet

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

“It is fairly easy for systems to block VPN servers’ IP addresses where they can be found quite easily,” said Deryck Mitchelson, EMEA field officer for information security at Check Point Software.

“That’s why open VPNs are only available for a short period of time before they are recognized and blocked.”

NetBlocks said, in a blog post, that the periodic internet outages in Iran “continued daily similar to a curfew”. NetBlocks said the disruption “affects connectivity at the network layer,” meaning it can’t be easily resolved through the use of VPNs.

Mahsa Ali Mardani, a researcher with the Freedom of Expression Campaign’s Article 19 group, said a contact she was communicating with in Iran showed that his network failed to connect to Google, despite they had installed a VPN.

“This is a new redundant deep packet inspection technology they developed to make the network very unreliable,” she said. This technology allows ISPs and governments to monitor and block data on the network.

She added that the authorities are more aggressive in their quest to thwart new VPN connections.

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

VPNs are not the only technologies that citizens can use to circumvent Internet censorship. Volunteers set up so-called Snowflake proxy servers, or “proxies,” on their browsers to allow Iranians to access Tor — a program that routes traffic through a worldwide “relay” network to obfuscate their activity.

“In addition to VPNs, Iranians are also downloading Tor in much larger numbers than usual,” Yen said.

Meanwhile, the encrypted messaging app Signal I collected a guide About how Iranians use proxies to bypass censorship and gain access to the Signal app, which was banned in Iran last year. Proxies serve a similar purpose to Tor, tunneling traffic through a community of computers to help users in countries where online access is restricted to maintain anonymity.

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