VPN use skyrockets in Iran as citizens face internet censorship

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

Mike Kemp | In Images via Getty Images

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

The outages began hitting Iranian telecommunications networks on Sept. 19, according to data from internet monitoring firms Cloudflare and NetBlocks, and have been going on for the past two-and-a-half weeks.

Internet monitoring groups and digital rights activists say they are seeing “curfew-style” network outages every day, with access restricted from around 4pm local time until well into the night.

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

As a result, Iranians have turned to VPNs, services that encrypt and redirect their traffic to a remote server in other parts of the world to hide their online activity. This allowed them to restore connections to restricted websites and apps.

On Sept. 22, one day after WhatsApp and Instagram were banned, demand for VPN services skyrocketed 2,164% over the previous 28 days, according to data from Top10VPN, a VPN research and review site.

Iran shuts down internet as government cracks down on protests

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

“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 the authorities cannot control the narrative and suppress evidence of human rights abuses.”

“The Iranian authorities’ decision to block access to these platforms as protests erupted caused the demand for VPNs to skyrocket,” he added.

The demand is much higher than the riots of 2019, which were triggered by rising fuel prices and led to a near-total internet blackout for 12 days. Back then, according to Migliano, peak demand was only about 164% higher than usual.

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

At least 154 people were killed in the protests, including children, according to the non-governmental group Iran Human Rights. The government reported 41 dead. Tehran has tried to prevent the sharing of images of its crackdown and obstruct communication 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 an alternative solution to restrictions on Western platforms blocked by Beijing, including Google, Facebook and Twitter. Homegrown platforms like Tencent’s WeChat are extremely limited in terms of what can be said by users.

Russia saw a similar increase in demand for VPNs in March after Moscow tightened internet limits following its invasion of Ukraine.

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

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

“Historically, we have seen internet crackdowns during times of unrest in Iran that have led to an increase in VPN usage.”

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

Not a silver bullet

Using VPNs in strictly limited countries like Iran has not been without its challenges.

“It’s quite easy for regimes to block the IP addresses of VPN servers as they can be found quite easily,” said Deryck Mitchelson, field chief information security officer for the EMEA region 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.”

Periodic internet outages in Iran have “continued on a daily curfew-style basis,” NetBlocks said, in a blog post. The outage “affects network-level connectivity,” NetBlocks said, meaning they aren’t easily fixed through the use of VPNs.

Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher with the free speech campaign group Article 19, said a contact she communicated with in Iran showed her network unable to connect to Google, despite having a VPN installed.

“This is a neat new deep packet inspection technology they’ve developed to make the network extremely unreliable,” he said. This technology allows Internet service providers and governments to monitor and block data on a network.

Authorities are much more aggressive in trying to crack down on new VPN connections, he added.

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

VPNs aren’t the only techniques citizens can use to bypass internet censorship. Volunteers are installing so-called Snowflake proxy servers, or “proxies,” on their browsers to give Iranians access to Tor, software that routes traffic through a worldwide “forwarding” network to obfuscate their activity .

“Besides VPNs, Iranians also downloaded significantly more Tor than usual,” Yen said.

Meanwhile, encrypted messaging app Signal compiled 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, funneling traffic through a community of computers to help users in countries where online access is restricted preserve anonymity.