The stakes turn deadly as the Iranian government threatens phone apps helping protesters

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Firuzeh Mahmoudi rubs his temples. Speaking on a video call from her home in San Francisco, she looks tired, exhausted. “Things are not improving, Iran is not doing very well,” she said.

It is September 23, four days after the Iranian government shut down the internet in the city of Sanandaj in northern Kurdistan. Shortly after Mahmoudi and I spoke, the Iranian government blocked access to Instagram and WhatsApp (estimated to be used by 70% of Iranian adults) and shut down the internet for hours each day so that even basic communication , not to mention the work, becomes almost impossible.

The internet shutdowns followed several days of nationwide anti-government protests in response to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of Iran’s vicious and widely reviled morality police.

A protester in Iran holds photographs of Mahsa Amini that show her before and after her encounter with Iran’s fearsome morality police. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

At least 76 people have been killed during the protests, according to human rights groups, and more than 700 arrested. Police say Amini died of a heart attack. But her father insisted she was healthy. The photos that emerged after his death were heartbreaking: his eyes were purple and swollen. She appears to have been tortured.

Mahmoudi is the executive director of United For Iran, a nonprofit organization focused on human rights in the country that created an app called Gershad, which first rose to prominence in 2016, enabling women Iranians to warn each other about the morality police in the country. surroundings.

At the time, United For Iran kept its involvement in building Gershad quiet, but they were open about the value of mobile phone apps and web resources to help drive progressive change. One example is Nahoft, an app that allows Android users to encrypt their messages before sending them. (Over 90% of cellphone users in Iran use the Android operating system.) Gershad has been a vital tool in this recent round of protests. Its Twitter account – where the group reposts some of the app’s morality police reports – soared, with weekly impressions jumping from 1,900 to nearly 1.5 million.

However, the shutdown of mobile internet in Iran rendered the app largely unusable. Limited internet access has drastically restricted who can use the app, leaving many still active protesters vulnerable, echoing a similar shutdown in 2019 when an order from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei demanded “Do whatever it takes to stop them”. In the two weeks that followed, nearly 1,500 people were killed.

For protesters, a popular app like Gershad serves as a rallying cry, a way to keep spirits up and motivate people to take to the streets. This sudden freeze in activity jeopardized this aspect of the application. “Silence makes people think that nothing else is going on. So it takes the wind out of the sails,” says Mahmoudi. “So people aren’t going out on the streets as much and it’s running out of steam. And then they kill us.

When Gershad debuted in 2016, it caught on quickly. “Within 12 hours we had to get a new server,” Mahmoudi told me. The group had released the app ad-free, but it had a user base of 10,000 within the first 48 hours. This kind of popularity quickly caught the attention of the Iranian government, which banned Gershad and its APIs (application programming interface, the software that allows apps to talk to each other) within 24 hours of its release.

Screenshots of Gershad’s app: Users can use the map to locate the Morality Police. Courtesy of Firuzeh Mahmoudi.

The ban, intended to make the app useless to those who had downloaded it, was quickly circumvented by the development team – by integrating functions into the interface that circumvented the censorship. Even at the start of the application, his conflicted relationship with the Iranian authorities seemed clear. The app was designed to help Iranian citizens retain some control, while Iranian authorities seem determined to violently suppress even the most minor displays of individual agency.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say the government is at the forefront of our concerns,” Fereidoon Bashar, executive director of ASL19, a Canadian civil society-focused technology company that leads Gershad’s software development, told me. “For us it’s mostly about how to make the app more secure, more private, but that means the government is definitely an adversary.”

Iran has a history of using technology to limit the freedom of its citizens. Earlier this month, Iranian officials announced that facial recognition technology would now be used to identify and punish women who violate the country’s rigid dress code.

Despite the adaptability and flexibility of Gershad’s developers, the question for many Iranian developers is whether the technology that is widely used to oppress Iranians can also be used to liberate them?

In 2018, for example, in response to the growing popularity of Telegram in the country, Iran banned the app and introduced Telegram Gold, which advertised new features and, above all, was actually available. The app became a user data farm for the Iranian government, which quickly collection nearly 14 million users’ private information.

“If you don’t have people familiar with the geopolitical situation on your team, then your tools could definitely be like a weapon in their hands,” said Amir Rashidi, director of digital rights at Texas-based Miaan Group, which provides technical services. legal, legal and research expertise with human rights organizations in Iran and the region.

Bashar, for much of our conversation, seemed barely able to bring himself to speak. Like Mahmoudi, he looked exhausted and sad. “I’ve seen better days,” he admitted early in our call. For him, his work on Gershad, despite its success and its value to the protests, was no substitute for not being there, for not being on the streets and actively present.

“Maybe I don’t see it as guilt or maybe I should,” he sighed. “It’s definitely a feeling that you’re on the outside and there are people who are, you know, violently brutalized and oppressed. It’s been hard to watch.

“I don’t necessarily see the internet shutting down as something about the success of the app,” he told me. “The consequences that follow internet shutdowns are suffered by real protesters and people.”

A thousand people gather outside the auditorium at the University of California, Berkeley to show solidarity with Iranian protesters after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

Despite the shutdown of mobile internet services and its effects on daily life, Iranians have continued to take to the streets to voice their anger. Reports from Iran suggest that the morality police vans – large white and green patrol vehicles from which officers monitored Iranian citizens, especially women – have disappeared entirely.

Rashidi, who told me that Iran’s internet shutdown was his “greatest fear”, acknowledged that the crowds of people willing to brave police brutality and prison had inspired hope in anyone who imagines a less repressive future for Iran. “I mean, we had witnessed police brutality for a long time,” he said, “but this one was different. She was so innocent. basically fanned the flames of frustration, which is why we’re seeing all these protests across the country.

Although experts continue to doubt that these demonstrations will lead to the overthrow of the Khamenei regime, the protesters have managed to change the debate. Previous protests had focused on the economy and electoral corruption; now culture and repression are the catalysts.

Mahmoudi told me that he had one comment left for the Gershad team saved on his computer. The post helps remind him that technology can still be a force for good: “Gershad is a successful example of channeling hate and anger into underground tunnels without the need for leadership or the media. Every minute, we recreate the map of our city…together.

The post talks about Gershad’s ultimate philosophy: it’s about the user base, it’s about collaboration and the absence of hierarchy or singular control, and it’s about access and agency.

“I really like it,” Mahmoudi said smiling.

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