Toronto app helping Iranians beat censors
As authorities block internet access across Iran, people turn to tech tools such as Psiphon to resist the control of information
A Toronto-based app, which thwarts both firewalls and internet censorship, is reporting a 20-fold increase in users in the span of five days. Almost all of the new users hail from Iran, where internet access has been blocked by the government.
Psiphon is a decade-old app invented in the Citizen Lab, a research institution that is part of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.
Typically, it gets 25,000 to 40,000 new installations per day across all mobile platforms (Windows, Android and iOS).
But from Dec. 30 — the day Iranian authorities reportedly began to cut off access to the internet, including social media apps such as Telegram and Instagram — to Jan. 3, the average number of installations increased to more than 700,000 per day.
Data shared from Iran over the app’s network increased almost five-fold over the same period, with mobile usage increased 10-fold.
Psiphon estimates that, according to the information presently available, there are now eight to 10 million daily users from Iran.
“Blocking of social media is most often the driver behind usage spikes that we see around the world,” said spokesperson Alexis Gantous in an email.
“We’ve always been aimed at supporting internet freedom,” Gantous explained.
Reports say authorities in Iran began a crackdown on the internet in an attempt to stop protesters from organizing, in one of the largest antigovernment public demonstration the country has seen in years.
Iran also blocked major social-media sites such as Twitter and Facebook in 2009.
The Centre for Human Rights in Iran reported Psiphon was the only app working amid the current crackdown.
Psiphon has grown to countries like Iran “primarily through word of mouth,” said Gantous.
The program disguises a user’s internet usage by tunnelling the device’s internet connection through foreign cloud-service providers or proxy networks, making the user harder to trace. Any data sent via the software is encrypted.
The software was created in 2006. “At the time, there were very few easy-to-use means for citizens to bypass censorship,” said Ronald Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab. “We created a system based on private social networks of trust.”
The app has evolved since then, according to both Deibert and Gantous.
“What Psiphon is now is a much more formalized service than it was,” said Gantous.
That is evident in the global user base it is employed by, including those in China, Brazil, Uganda, Yemen and now Iran.
“Citizens seek to access information at all times, and especially in situations of crisis,” said Deibert. “The Iranian regime has employed extensive controls on the internet, which have ramped up in recent weeks. Naturally, citizens try to find ways to access information by basing those controls.
“Psiphon supplies one such avenue,” he said.