US-funded VPNs, Apps See Increased Usage In Iran

Iranian protesters get aid from U.S.-backed VPNs

U.S.-backed virtual private networks (VPNs) are working to help Iranians circumvent internet censorship from their own government.

The outreach is intended to help anti-regime protesters get access to free internet and secure messaging, with the U.S. government supporting protesters inside Iran. The outreach aims to ramp up pressure on the Iranian regime.

The efforts have been going on since 2018, when some of the largest protests in Iran in a decade were happening. Since then, Washington has been boosting their initiatives to give Iranians more options on how to communicate with each other and the rest of the world.

Some of the specifics include more access to apps, servers and other types of tech to help people stay connected to one another, visit websites banned in Iran, install anti-tracking software and get through data shutdowns.

Amid heavy censorship by the regime, Iranians often rely on virtual private networks (VPNs), which they don’t realize are supported by the U.S.

One U.S. state department official told The Financial Times that they are working to “help the free flow of information” and that they’ve aided rebels in Iranian protests, such as one stemming from the January 8 downing of a passenger jet that killed 176 people.

The official said the processes they use allow Iranians to access the internet.

The U.S. has been working with numerous companies to implement the tech, such as Canadian software maker Psiphon, which reported a 25 percent jump in Iranian usage this month. The Trump administration’s work is building upon programs by the Obama administration before it, which were dedicated to providing internet in countries that don’t have it in safe or free capacities.

This year, they’ll spend at least $65.5 million on the Internet Freedom program, which is a 30 percent increase since Obama left office.

Some of the services blocked by Iran’s government include Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

The U.S. and Iran have been entangled in strife after the killing of Qassem Soleimani early in January, and the VPNs are just one of many facets of the conflict that may go digital in 2020.