Big Tech could help Iranian protesters by using an old tool

After the Iranian government took extreme measures to limit internet use in response to the pro-democracy protests that have filled Iranian streets since mid-September, Western tech companies scrambled to help restore access to Iranian citizens. 

Signal asked its users to help run proxy servers with support from the company. Google offered credits to help Iranians get online using Outline, the company’s own VPN. And in response to a post by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Iran’s censorship, Elon Musk quickly tweeted: “Activating Starlink …

But these workarounds aren’t enough. Though the first Starlink satellites have been smuggled into Iran, restoring the internet will likely require several thousand more. Signal tells MIT Technology Review that it has been vexed by “Iranian telecommunications providers preventing some SMS validation codes from being delivered.” And Iran has already detected and shut down Google’s VPN, which is what happens when any single VPN grows too popular (plus, unlike most VPNs, Outline costs money).

What’s more, “there’s no reliable mechanism for Iranian users to find these proxies,” Nima Fatemi, head of global cybersecurity nonprofit Kandoo, points out. They’re being promoted on social media networks that are themselves banned in Iran. “While I appreciate their effort,” he adds, “it feels half-baked and half-assed.”

There is something more that Big Tech could do, according to some pro-democracy activists and experts on digital freedom. But it has received little attention—even though it’s something several major service providers offered until just a few years ago.

“One thing people don’t talk about is domain fronting,” says Mahsa Alimardani, an internet researcher at the University of Oxford and Article19, a human rights organization focused on freedom of expression and information. It’s a technique developers used for years to skirt internet restrictions like those that have made it incredibly difficult for Iranians to communicate safely. In essence, domain fronting allows apps to disguise traffic directed towards them; for instance, when someone types a site into a web browser, this technique steps into that bit of browser-to-site communication and can scramble what the computer sees on the backend to disguise the end site’s true identity.

In the days of domain fronting, “cloud platforms were used for circumvention,” Alimardani explains. From 2016 to 2018, secure messaging apps like Telegram and Signal used the cloud hosting infrastructure of Google, Amazon, and Microsoft—which most of the web runs on—to disguise user traffic and successfully thwart bans and surveillance in Russia and across the Middle East.

But Google and Amazon discontinued the practice in 2018, following pushback from the Russian government and citing security concerns about how it could be abused by hackers. Now activists who work at the intersection of human rights and technology say reinstating the technique, with some tweaks, is a tool Big Tech could use to quickly get Iranians back online.

Domain fronting “is a good place to start” if tech giants really want to help, Alimardani says. “They need to be investing in helping with circumvention technology, and having stamped out domain fronting is really not a good look.”

Domain fronting could be a critical tool to help protesters and activists stay in touch with each other for planning and safety purposes, and to allow them to update worried family and friends during a dangerous period. “We recognize the possibility that we might not come back home every time we go out,” says Elmira, an Iranian woman in her 30s who asked to be identified only by her first name for security reasons.

Still, no major companies have publicly said they will consider launching or restoring the anti-censorship tool. Two of the three major service providers that previously allowed domain fronting, Google and Microsoft, could not be reached for comment. The third, Amazon, directed MIT Technology Review to a 2019 blog post in which a product manager described steps the company has taken to minimize the “abusive use of domain fronting practices.”

“A cat-and-mouse game”

By now, Iranian citizens largely expect that their digital communications and searches are being combed through by the powers of the state. “They listen and control almost all communications in order to counter demonstrations,” says Elmira. “It’s like we’re being suffocated.”

This isn’t, broadly speaking, a new phenomenon in the country. But it’s reached a crisis point over the past two months, during a growing swell of anti-government protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on September 16 after Iran’s Guidance Patrol—more commonly known as the morality police—arrested her for wearing her hijab improperly.

“The world realized that the matter of hijab, which I myself believe is a personal choice, could become an incident over which a young girl can lose her life,” Elmira says. 

According to rights groups, over 300 people, including at least 41 children, have been killed since protests began. The crackdown has been especially brutal in largely Kurdish western Iran, where Amini was from and Elmira now lives. Severely restricting internet access has been a way for the regime to further crush dissent. “This is not the first time that the internet services have been disrupted in Iran,” Elmira says. “The reason for this action is the government’s fear, because there is no freedom of speech here.”

The seeds of today’s digital repression trace back to 2006, when Iran announced plans to craft its own intranet—an exclusive, national network designed to keep Iranians off the World Wide Web. 

“This is really hard to do,” says Kian Vesteinsson, a senior analyst for the global democracy nonprofit Freedom House. That’s because it requires replicating global infrastructure with domestic resources while pruning global web access.

The payoff is “digital spaces that are easier to monitor and to control,” Vesteinsson says. Of the seven countries trying to isolate themselves from the global internet, Iran is the furthest along today.

Iran debuted its National Information Network in 2019, when authorities hit a national kill switch on the global web amid protests over gas prices. During a week when the country was electronically cut off from the rest of the world, the regime killed 1,500 people. The Iranian economy, which relies on broader connectivity to do business, lost over a billion US dollars during the bloody week. 

While recently Iran has intermittently cut access to the entire global internet in some regions, it hasn’t instituted another total global web shutdown. Instead, it is largely pursuing censorship strategies designed to crush dissent while sparing the economy. Rolling “digital curfews” are in place from about 4 p.m. into the early morning hours—ensuring that the web becomes incredibly difficult to access during the period when most protests occur.

The government has blocked most popular apps, including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp, in favor of local copycat apps where no message or search is private.

“The messaging apps we use, like WhatsApp, have a certain level of protection embedded in their coding,” Elmira says. “We feel more comfortable using them. [The government] cannot have control over them, and as a result, they restrict access.”

The Iranian regime is also aggressively shutting down VPNs, which were a lifeline for many Iranians and the country’s most popular censorship workaround. About 80% of Iranians use tools to bypass censorship and use apps they prefer. “Even my grandpa knows how to install a VPN app,” an Iranian woman who requested anonymity for safety reasons tells me. 

To crush VPN use, Iran’s government has invested heavily in “deep packet inspection,” a technology that peers into the fine print of internet traffic and can recognize and shut down nearly any VPN with time.

That’s created a “cat-and-mouse game,” says Alimardani, the internet researcher. “You need to be offering, like, thousands of VPNs,” she says, so that some will remain available as Iran diligently recognizes and blocks others. Without enough VPNs, activists aren’t left with many secure communication options, making it much harder for Iranians to coordinate protests and communicate with the outside world as death tolls climb.

Domain fronting to beat censors

Domain fronting works by concealing the app or website a user ultimately wants to reach. It’s sort of like putting a correctly addressed postcard in an envelope with a different, innocuous destination—then having someone at the fake-out address hand-deliver it.

The technique is attractive because it’s implemented by service providers rather than individuals, who may or may not be tech savvy. It also makes censorship more painful for governments to pursue. The only way to ban a domain-fronted app is to shut down the entire web hosting provider the app uses—bringing an avalanche of other apps and sites down with it. And since Microsoft, Amazon, and Google provide hosting services for most of the digital world, domain fronting by those companies would force countries to crash much of the internet in order to deny access to an undesired app.

“There’s no way to just pick out Telegram. That’s the power of it,” says Erik Hunstad, a security expert and CTO of the cybersecurity company SixGen.

Nevertheless, in April 2018, Russia blocked Amazon, Google, and a host of other popular services in order to ban the secure-messaging app Telegram, which initially used domain fronting to beat censors. These disruptions made the ban broadly unpopular with average Russians, not just activists who favored the app. 

The Russian government, in turn, exerted pressure on Amazon and Google to end the practice.

In April 2018, the companies terminated support for domain fronting altogether. “Amazon and Google just completely disabled this potentially extremely useful service,” Alimardani says. 

Google made the change quietly, but soon afterwards, it described domain fronting to the Verge as a “quirk” of its software. In its own announcement, Amazon said domain fronting could help malware masquerade as standard traffic. Hackers could also abuse the technique—the Russian hacker group APT29 has used domain fronting, alongside other means, to access classified data.

Still, Signal, which began using domain fronting in 2016 to operate in several Middle Eastern countries attempting to block the app, issued a statement at the time: “The censors in these countries will have (at least temporarily) achieved their goals.”

“While domain fronting still works with domains on smaller networks, this greatly limits the current utility of the technique,” says Simon Migliano, a digital privacy expert and head of research at Top10VPN, an independent VPN review website.

(Microsoft announced a ban on domain fronting in 2021, but the cloud infrastructure that enables the technique is intact. Earlier this week, Microsoft wrote that, going forward, it will “block any HTTP request that exhibits domain fronting behavior.”)

Migliano echoes Google in describing domain fronting as “essentially a bug,” and he admits it has “very real security risks.” It is “certainly a shame” that companies are revoking it, he says, “but you can understand their position.”

But Hunstad, who also works in cybersecurity, says there are ways to minimize the cybersecurity risks of domain fronting while preserving its use as an anti-censorship tool. He explains that the way networks process user requests means Google, Amazon, or Microsoft could easily greenlight the use of domain fronting for certain apps, like WhatsApp or Telegram, while otherwise banning the tactic.

Rather than technical limitations, Hunstad says, it’s a “prisoner’s dilemma situation [for] the big providers” that is keeping them from re-enabling domain fronting—they’re stuck between pressure from authoritarian governments and an outcry from activists. He speculates that financial imperatives are part of the calculus as well. 

“If I’m hosting my website with Google, and they decide to enable this for Signal and Telegram, or maybe across the board, and multiple countries decide to remove access to all of Google because of that—then I have potentially less reach,” Hunstad says. “I’ll just go to the provider that’s not doing it, and Google is going to have a business impact.” 

The likelihood that Amazon or Google will reinstate domain fronting depends on “how cynical you are about their profit motives versus their good intentions for the world,” Hunstad adds. 

What’s next

While Fatemi, from Kandoo, argues that restoring domain fronting would be helpful for Iranian protesters, he emphasizes that it wouldn’t be a silver bullet. 

“In the short term, if they can relax domain fronting so that people, for example, can use Signal, or people can connect to VPN connections, that would be phenomenal,” he says. He adds that to move solutions along more quickly, companies like Google could collaborate with nonprofits that specialize in deploying tech in vulnerable situations. 

But Big Tech companies also need to commit a bigger slice of their resources and talent to developing technologies that can beat internet censorship, he says: “[Domain fronting is] a Band-Aid on a much larger problem. If we want to go at a much larger problem, we have to dedicate engineers.” 

Until the world finds an enduring solution to authoritarian attempts to splinter the global web, tech companies that want to help people will be left scrambling for reactive tactics. 

“There needs to be a whole toolkit of different kinds of VPNs and circumvention tools right now, because what they are doing is highly sophisticated,” Alimardani says. “Google is one of the richest and most powerful companies in the world. And offering one VPN is really not enough.”

So for now, seven weeks into Iran’s protests, internet and VPN access remain throttled, restrictions show no sign of slowing, and domain fronting remains dead. And it’s the citizens on the front lines who have to carry the biggest burden.

“The conditions are dire here,” Elmira tells me. The lack of connectivity has made massacres difficult to verify and has complicated efforts to sustain protests and other activism. 

“To counter the demonstrations, they cut off our access to the internet and social media,” she says. 

But Elmira is resolute. “I, myself, and many of my friends now go out with no fear,” she says. “We know that they might shoot us. But it is worth taking this risk and to go out and try our best instead of staying home and continuing taking this.”

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