Signal is reportedly under attack from Iranian authorities as interest grows among rumors that the government already has access to user information in other popular messaging apps.
According to Al-Jazeera, many users of the privacy-focused messaging app in Iran reported that they were unable to communicate as Signal ranked first on the Google Play Store in the country this month. The app has already been removed from Iranian cafes and Myket app stores.
In a tweet, Signal said she was “No. 1 on the Iranian government’s blacklist” and tried to circumvent the country’s attempts to impose censorship.
The report stated that a committee of Iranian officials tasked with identifying “criminal content” indicated that Signal represented a threat. However, a government spokesman also said that the judiciary had not “banned any media, news agencies or news outlets” and did not intend to do so.
In November 2019, Iran faced a large number of massive civilian protests amid economic difficulties as a result of US sanctions, allegations of government corruption, high fuel prices and then the COVID-19 pandemic. Several social media posts at the time indicated that Iranian authorities had killed protesters, which led the government to block internet access for almost all people in the country for several days.
Iranians can now send messages via WhatsApp and Instagram, but many expect the government to have access to the apps without actually offering any privacy. Iranian authorities are currently blocking Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Telegram, where the latter is said to account for 60% of the country’s internet bandwidth.
Although Iran tried to block Telegram in 2018 when users shared violent reactions against government protesters, many residents were able to circumvent these restrictions using a VPN. Under these circumstances, the app is still widely used in the country, but privacy is still an issue as rumors circulate that the government may even have access to Telegram.
Alex Gladstein of the Human Rights Foundation said privacy tools such as Signal have been used by similar movements in the United States – especially Black Lives Matter protests – “as a way to avoid police surveillance.” It was thought that anyone living under a dictatorial regime would probably need privacy, and thus demonizing Signal in a democracy could lead to a larger police state run by “mass surveillance to combat extremism”.
Digital rights researcher Amir Rashidi echoes this sentiment in the Al-Jazeera report on the attempt to block Signal:
“Traditionally, when the Iranian government can not understand what is happening or who is doing what, it is afraid that people may do something against the government.”