Iranians seeking to share videos and other eyewitness accounts of the demonstrations that have roiled their country since disputed elections two weeks ago are using an Internet encryption program originally developed by and for the U.S. Navy.
Designed a decade ago to secure Internet communications between U.S. ships at sea, The Onion Router, or TOR, has become one of the most important proxies in Iran for gaining access to Web sites such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.
The system of proxy servers that disguise a user’s Internet traffic is now operated by a nonprofit, the Tor Project, that is independent from the U.S. government and military and is used all over the world.
According to the Tor Project, connections to TOR have gone up by 600 percent since mass protests erupted after the June 12 vote, which gave a purported landslide victory to incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“Over the past two weeks, we have seen a doubling to tripling of new client connections,” Andrew Lewman, executive director of the Tor Project, told The Washington Times Thursday. “We are up to a thousand new clients a day.”
Tehran was relatively quiet on Thursday, but opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi vowed not to back down and Iranians found novel ways to continue their protests combining high and low technology.
An Iranian who asked not to be named to avoid government retribution told The Times that Iranians are writing protest slogans on their paper money. Mass e-mails have been sent out telling people approached by the authorities to say they got the money from someone else, he said.
Among the slogans the Iranian saw scrawled over the image of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution: “What happened to our vote, dictator?” “Death to the coup d’etat guard.” “Supreme leader equals Shah.” “The government cheats, the supreme leader approves.”
Iran, a country of 70 million people, has more than 20 million Internet users - the highest percentage in the region outside Israel - and a well-developed blogosphere.
For Iranian Internet users, TOR allows them to visit government-banned Web sites and avoid detection by the authorities. The Tor Project does this by routing Web requests among several different computer servers all over the world. While there are other proxy servers that “anonymize” Web surfing, TOR is considered the best product available on the Internet.
“There are plenty of programs political dissidents can use to route their Internet traffic through third parties and escape censorship and avoid monitoring,” said Noah Shachtman, the editor of Wired.com’s national security blog, Danger Room. “But TOR is different because it is an encrypted network of node after node, each one unlocking encryption to the next node. And because of this, it is all but impossible for governments to track Web sites a TOR user is visiting. TOR is a great way to give Ahmadinejad’s Web censors headaches.”
Since the mass demonstrations began, the Iranian government has tried to denigrate the protests as being instigated by the CIA and other foreign intelligence agencies - a charge that President Obama and other foreign leaders have repeatedly denied.
While U.S. officials and Iran specialists say that the demonstrations are homegrown and reflect pent-up Iranian frustration with the lack of liberty in their country, the U.S. government has in the past invested in communications technology to help Iranians organize and improve their access to the West.
In 2007, the State Department spent $31 million to promote democracy in Iran. An addiional $60 million was appropriated for the program in 2008, but much of it has not yet been spent, former State Department officials said.
Some Iran specialists have criticized the program, noting that it was used by the Iranian government to taint recipients as agents of the West.
David Denehy, the Iran democracy program coordinator for the State Department from 2005 to 2007, said, “Our goal was to promote freedom of speech for Iranians to communicate with each other and the outside world. We funded and supported innovative technologies to allow them to do this via the Internet, cell phones and other media.”
Mr. Denehy added, however, that Iran’s democracy movement is being directed by Iranians.
“What we are witnessing now is the Iranian people utilizing these new technologies and that is on their own accord,” he said. “They have done it themselves. I hope the projects we funded have been helpful to them, but this is an Iranian-led movement.”
Another agency in the U.S. government that has provided seed money to help Iranians avoid Internet censorship is the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the body that oversees the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Farda, a Farsi-language radio station that stepped up shortwave broadcasts recently to counteract Iranian government efforts to jam the signal.
Ken Berman, acting director of engineering for the BBG, said he oversees a three-person anti-censorship team that focuses on China and Iran. He declined to provide the exact budget for the project, saying only that it was “under $5 million” a year.
“We have realized that Iran has a growing audience of young activist Internet users and we have repurposed our tools to work in Farsi and make it available to Iranians,” he said. “We open up the channels so the Iranian blogosphere is more accessible to Iranians in Iran.”
Mr. Berman said that one project his group funded was to design the Firefox Web browser to embed the TOR proxy system.
The anti-censorship operation has also benefited VOA, whose “traffic has gone up exponentially” since the unrest began in Iran, he said.
Mr. Berman said that this is not U.S. “meddling” in Iranian affairs.
“All we are doing is providing an open channel so Iranians can get information coming in and out,” he said.
Suad Jafarzadeh contributed to this report.