VPN use skyrockets in Iran as citizens navigate internet censorship

Iranians are protesting to demand justice, highlighting the death of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by morality police and subsequently died under suspicious circumstances in Tehran hospital.

Mike Kemp | In pictures via Getty Images

Iranians are turning to virtual private networks to circumvent widespread internet disruptions as the government tries to cover up its crackdown on mass protests.

Outages in Iran’s telecom networks first began on September 19 and have been going on for two and a half weeks, according to data from internet surveillance companies Cloudflare and NetBlocks.

Internet surveillance groups and digital rights activists say they’re seeing lockdown-style network disruptions every day, with access throttled from around 4 p.m. local time until well into the night.

Tehran blocked access to WhatsApp and Instagram, two of Iran’s last uncensored social media services. Twitter, FacebookYouTube and several other platforms have been banned for years.

As a result, Iranians are flocking to VPNs, services that encrypt and redirect their traffic to a remote server somewhere else in the world, to hide their online activity. This allowed them to reestablish connections to restricted websites and apps.

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

Iran shuts down internet as government cracks down on protests

By September 26, demand peaked at 3,082% above average and has since remained high at 1,991% above normal levels, according to Top10VPN.

“Social media plays a crucial 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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“The Iranian authorities’ decision to block access to these platforms as protests erupted has skyrocketed demand for VPNs,” he added.

Demand is much higher than during the 2019 riots, which were sparked by rising fuel prices and led to a near-total 12-day internet blackout. According to Migliano, peak demand at the time was only around 164% higher than usual.

Nationwide protests against Iran’s strict Islamic dress code began on September 16 following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman. Amini died in suspicious circumstances after being arrested and allegedly beaten by Iran’s so-called “morality police” for wearing her hijab too loosely. Iranian authorities denied any wrongdoing, claiming that Amini died of a heart attack.

At least 154 people, including children, were killed in the protests, according to the non-governmental organization Iran Human Rights. The government has reported 41 deaths. Tehran has tried to prevent the sharing of images of its crackdown and obstruct communications aimed at organizing further demonstrations.

Iran’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment.

Why VPNs are popular in Iran

VPNs are a common way for people under strict internet control regimes to access blocked services. In China, for example, they are often used as a workaround for restrictions on Western platforms that have been blocked by Beijing, including Google, Facebook and Twitter. Homegrown platforms like Tencent’s WeChat are extremely limited in terms of what users can say.

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Russia saw a similar spike in demand for VPNs in March after Moscow tightened internet restrictions after invading Ukraine.

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

“Since the assassination of Mahsa Amini, we have seen a tremendous increase in demand for Proton VPN,” Andy Yen, CEO and founder of Proton, told CNBC. “But even before that, VPN usage is high in Iran due to censorship and fears of surveillance.”

“In the past, during times of unrest in Iran, we’ve seen crackdowns on the internet that have led to a spike in VPN usage.”

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

No silver bullet

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

“It’s pretty easy for regimes to block VPN server IP addresses because they’re pretty easy to find,” said Deryck Mitchelson, field chief information security officer for EMEA at Check Point Software.

“Because of this, you will find that open VPNs are only available for a short time before they are identified and blocked.”

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Intermittent internet outages in Iran have “continued daily in a lockdown style,” NetBlocks said in a blog post. The disruption “impacts connectivity at the network level,” NetBlocks said, meaning they can’t be resolved simply by using VPNs.

Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher with the Free Speech Group, Article 19, said a contact she communicated with in Iran showed that his network could not connect to Google even though he installed a VPN.

“This is a new sophisticated deep packet inspection technology that they developed to make the network extremely unreliable,” she said. This technology allows internet service providers and governments to monitor and block data on a network.

Authorities are much more aggressive when it comes to preventing new VPN connections, she added.

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

VPNs aren’t the only techniques citizens can use to bypass internet censorship. Volunteers set up so-called Snowflake proxy servers, or “proxies,” in their browsers to allow Iranians to access Tor – software that routes traffic around the world through a “relay” network to obfuscate its activities .

“In addition to VPNs, Iranians have also downloaded Tor in significantly larger numbers than usual,” Yen said.

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

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