A New App Helps Iranians Hide Messages in Plain Sight

“When the internet goes down in Iran, people can’t communicate with their families inside and outside the country, and for activists everything comes to a screeching halt. And more and more the government is moving toward layered filtering, banning different digital platforms, and trying to come up with alternatives for international services like social media. This is not looking great; it’s the direction that we definitely don’t want to see. So this is where the app comes in.”

Firuzeh Mahmoudi, United for Iran’s executive director

IN THE MIDST OF EVER-INCREASING GOVERNMENT internet control, surveillance, and censorship in Iran, a new Android app attempts to allow Iranians a way to freely express themselves.

Nahoft (Farsi for “hidden”) is an encryption tool that converts up to 1,000 characters of Farsi text into a mess of random words. You may send this mash-up to a buddy via any communication platform—Telegram, WhatsApp, Google Chat, and so on—and they can decode what you’ve said by running it through Nahoft on their device.

Iranians can use end-to-end encrypted apps such as WhatsApp for safe communications, but Nahoft, which is open source, has a critical function in its back pocket for when those aren’t available. The Iranian administration has repeatedly imposed near-total internet outages in certain locations or across the country, most recently for a week in November 2019. If you already have Nahoft downloaded, you can use it locally on your device even if you don’t have internet access. Enter the message to be encrypted, and the program will output the coded Farsi message. From there you can write that string of seemingly random words in a letter, or read it to another Nahoft user over the phone, and they can enter it into their app manually to see what you were really trying to say.

Iran is a country with a lot of connections. The internet is used by more than 57 million of its 83 million residents. However, the country’s government has been intensely focused in recent years on establishing a vast state-controlled network, or intranet, known as the “National Information Network,” or SHOMA. This increasingly offers the government the capacity to filter and censor data as well as prohibit specific services ranging from social networks to circumvention tools such as proxies and VPNs.

This is why Nahoft was purposefully built to be a local app on your device rather than a communication platform. In the event of a complete internet outage, users must have already downloaded the app in order to utilize it. According to United for Iran strategic strategist Reza Ghazinouri, the Iranian authorities will find it impossible to restrict Nahoft as long as Google Play is still available in the country. Because Google Play traffic is encrypted, Iranian authorities are unable to see which apps consumers download. According to Ghazinouri, the government may someday establish its own app store and prohibit overseas products, but such capability appears to be a long way off for the time being. In China, for example, Google Play is prohibited in favor of products from Chinese tech behemoths such as Huawei and a curated version of the iOS App Store.

Source: Wired

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