Rights Group Launches Encryption App to Help Iranians Survive Internet Crackdowns

Android app Nahoft – Farsi for “hidden” – aims to help Iranians communicate securely without any fear of being watched by the authorities.
Rights Group Launches Encryption App to Help Iranians Survive Internet Crackdowns
Photo: Nahoft

A California-based nonprofit has released an encryption app it hopes will help Iranians bypass the regime’s internet shutdowns and communicate securely.

Nahoft – Farsi for “hidden” – allows Android users to encrypt any text message under 1,000 characters before sharing it.

Internet use is heavily regulated and surveilled in Iran, with thousands of websites banned including Facebook, Telegram and Twitter. Iran’s 52 million internet-savvy smartphone users have been using VPNs and proxies to avoid government restrictions, but authorities are slowly closing off access to these routes, under the guise of national security and preserving Iran’s morality.

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In its latest bid to protect against supposed foreign influence and remove content deemed immoral by the country’s ultra-conservative clergymen, the regime has spent millions of dollars on a project to create a “halal internet” called the National Information Network.

Most recently, Iranians experienced multiple partial internet shutdowns in a number of cities and provinces following angry demonstrations over power blackouts and water shortages in July. Back in November 2019, people endured a week-long nationwide internet blackout during protests – sparked by fuel price increases – that left hundreds dead. 

These shutdowns, which throttle information coming out of the country as well as undermining activists’ ability to organise, have led to the creation of Nahoft with the help of United for Iran, Based in San Francisco, United for Iran runs an Android app project called IranCubator, which offers a wide range of digital tools aimed at promoting, and defending civil society in Iran.

“The idea of Nahoft was born after I fled to Turkey in 2011, and from a conversation that I had with a journalist friend of mine, called Mohammad Haydari, who was very active and was forced to leave Iran with his family as well, and we agreed to create an offline encryption app in case the Islamic regime pulled the plug on the internet one day,” said the app’s co-creator Reza Ghazinouri, an Iranian student activist who now works as a security programme manager for a Silicon Valley company.

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Text messages are encrypted by Nahoft as a photo or text message that uses a string of words in Farsi that can be decrypted only between friends who have shared a public key. In case of an internet shutdown, users will be able to communicate securely even by reading the randomly generated words over the phone, and use a self-destruct code that will erase all data, Ghazinouri told VICE World News.

“We used Sodium encryption libraries, which is state-of-the-art encryption technology, and we tested the app with Cure53, one of the strongest penetration tests out there, so we are confident that the government wouldn’t be able to break its encryption.”

Earlier this summer, Iran’s parliament – controlled by a faction dominated by hardliners – passed a new internet censorship bill designed at regulating social media messaging. The law, brought by a close ally of the newly-elected President Ebrahim Raisi, criminalises the use of VPNs and requires all foreign and domestic social media networks and messaging apps to register with regulators in Iran.

“Our number one goal is to allow Iranians to communicate securely with each other without any fear of the government watching them, for both activists and citizens, since in Iran, someone can easily get arrested for sharing information, or if they want to have a beer secretly somewhere with friends, or go on a date,” said Firuzeh Mahmoudi, the founder of United for Iran.

“Hopefully, in the long-term, the government of Iran will see that trying to shut down the internet in a country is a fool's errand, and they’ve been trying to spend billions of dollars, but at the end of the day, it is not going to be effective, people will communicate both inside and outside the country, and hopefully they would spend less money on that, and the country would stay more open.”