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Islamic Republic Targeting Protesters on Social Media Using Chinese Surveillance

Iran's government accesses the social media accounts of those it detains. Tech companies appear ill-equipped to stop it. CNN
Iran’s government accesses the social media accounts of those it detains. Tech companies appear ill-equipped to stop it. CNN

The Islamic Republic regime’s security forces are relying on technology from China to target protesters posting on social media in support of the political movement inside the country that has now entered its fourth month.

Prison officials inside Iran’s prisons have told detainees that they have evidence of anti-regime activities on social media, threatening them with death threats and torture. 

They have used this as a pretext to seize prisoners' phones, using their private Telegram chats, phone logs, and text messages to incriminate prisoners and track individuals posting messages in support of the freedom movement and against the regime.

Jailed protesters interrogated and tortured by regime officials have been questioned about their relationship with other online individuals through phone conversations.

Young people continue to flood the streets in provinces across the country since September, when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was arrested for showing some of her hair under her hijab, and subsequently died while in custody after being beaten by officials. 

According to CNN, officials from human rights organizations like Miaan Group have told journalists of the cases where the regime in Tehran has been able to remotely access and manipulate the cell phones of jailed dissidents. These officials also note that tech companies are not well-equipped to manage such incidents.

Experts familiar with the Islamic Republic note that the regime has a history of using hacking tactics to surveil Telegram and Instagram accounts of protesters like Nika Shahkarami, the 16-year-old protester who died after a demonstration in Tehran in September. 

Iran authorities have denied involvement in her death, but previous reports found evidence suggesting she was detained at the protests shortly before she went missing.

One tech company, Meta, has opened an internal inquiry into activity on Nika's Instagram account after her disappearance.

As individuals like Nika have gone missing, family members and friends have seen Instagram and Telegram accounts disabled and mysteriously restored. In Nika's case, the reactivation of her accounts raises questions about whether Iranian authorities were responsible for accessing her social media profiles, allegedly to phish other protesters or compromise her after her death. 

According to experts, there are different ways the government could access an individual's accounts for their network of contacts.

Authorities have been able to use Telegram accounts using SIM cards from jailed protesters to view who can see their contacts and co-opt the two-factor authentication process for greater security by texting or emailing a login code.

The surveillance of protesters, however, would not be possible without Chinese technology, as new reports are surfacing that the CPC has been providing Iran’s ayatollahs with weapons, intelligence, and technology to spy and follow citizens.

Last year, Tiandy Technologies, a Tianjin-based technology company in surveillance and monitoring technologies like facial recognition, artificial intelligence-driven emotion detection software, and closed-circuit television, was used by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the Iranian national police and the military with several social control products, ranging from surveillance video recorders to thermal imaging cameras.

Iran authorities have relied on Tiandy's technology to clamp down on current protests.

In response to the growing concern over hacked social media accounts, investigations from Meta and other companies have found that they did not first disable the accounts of protesters. 

The inquiries by Meta have highlighted the serious limitations American tech companies have in addressing activists' concerns about Iran's handling of accounts. With protests continuing in Tehran, experts believe the regime will double down on its brutal response, shutting down Internet services and identifying targets via social media accounts to arrest civilians.

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