The app Psiphon was developed in 2006, but its decade-old technology is seeing widespread use today in Iran as millions of citizens evade government internet censorship.
Public demonstrations have wracked Iran since late December, largely in response to social, political, and economic grievances, exasperated by the country’s rising fuel and food prices.
Just like they did with the Green Movement protests over the presidency in 2009, the Iranian government is responding to protests by blocking social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, and more recently, Telegram.
Eight million to 10 million Iranians are estimated to have downloaded Psiphon since New Year’s Eve in order to bypass this internet censorship, increasing the app’s average number of daily downloads from 37,500 to 700,000.
Psiphon’s circumvention technology was created in 2006 at the Munk School of Global Affairs’ Citizen Lab.
Citizen Lab’s director, Professor Ronald Deibert, wrote, “Citizen Lab researchers had been researching patterns of Internet censorship worldwide for several years.” This research, he said, allowed their researchers to become knowledgeable about the strengths and weaknesses of bypassing internet filtering. “We came up with an innovative way to leverage private social networks of trust and called it Psiphon.”
Psiphon was unique in that it took an already existing idea — circumvention via connecting to proxy computers — and made it accessible. In a 2006 interview with CNN, Deibert explained how it works.
“People who live in uncensored locations (e.g. Canada) download Psiphon on their home computers and then give their connection information to a few trusted friends and family members who live in now more than 40 countries worldwide that censor internet communications,” said Deibert. “Those individuals connect to the computer in the [censored] locations and make requests for banned content.”
The Citizen Lab is not currently developing new censorship circumvention technology. “We are now focused on threats to human rights online that are more cutting edge,” said Deibert, referring to examples such as targeted espionage against civil society, hidden censorship and surveillance inside mobile applications, and the growing spread of cyber security practices that limit free expression and access to information.
In 2008, Psiphon became Psiphon Inc., a corporation completely independent of the Citizen Lab and U of T. It has since been speculated to have received funding from foreign sources like the European Parliament and the US State Department Internet Freedom program.
Its circumvention system has evolved from the original Citizen Lab design. Its current version has the capacity for smart selection of different transport protocols, including Secure Shell and Virtual Private Network technologies. This makes for what Alexis Gantous of Psiphon calls a secure “tunneling software.”
The app is anonymous insofar as it does not require the creation of an account that would collect users’ IP or email addresses. User data — including any chat messages, uploads, and browsing history — are also encrypted. However, Psiphon stresses that it is only an anti-censorship app and that the privacy of its users cannot be guaranteed.