Signal Is Asking People Around the World to Help Iranians Access the Encrypted App

In this photo illustration the Signal logo seen in the background of a silhouette hand holding a mobile phone.

Image: Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The popular encrypted chat app Signal is trying to help Iranians use the app, which is blocked in the country, by asking people to set up proxy servers that can help Iranians circumvent the government’s censorship. 

Last week, the Iranian morality police arrested and then beat Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, for not wearing her hijab properly according to the country’s strict rules. Shortly after, Amini fell into a coma and died in custody. Iranian authorities said Amini died of a heart attack during what it called a “re-education” session. Her family claimed she suffered a head injury because of the beatings.

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The death of Amini has since sparked nationwide protests that some consider the largest and strongest rejection of the morality police, and the country’s regime, in a long time.   

Iran’s government, as it has done in the past, is throttling or completely blocking access to the internet in some cities and regions, such as the capital Tehran. The government has also blocked access to Instagram and WhatsApp, the only western social media and chat apps that are available in the country. Instagram in particular has been incredibly popular in the last few years, and Iran essentially gave up on trying to censor it when the company switched to encrypting all its users’ traffic, making it impossible to block specific posts.

Signal has been blocked in the country since last year. Now, the Signal Foundation behind the app wants to help users get around the block by connecting to proxies around the world. 

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“[It] is easy to set up, can be used to bypass the network block, and will securely route traffic to the Signal service,” Meredith Whittaker, the President of the Signal Foundation who is also on the board of directors, wrote on Thursday

“Although it’s easy to launch new proxies if one gets blocked, we want to do everything we can to make things as difficult for Iranian censors as possible. As long as there are servers in the world, there is no limit to the number of Signal TLS Proxies that people can run,” Whittaker wrote. 

Do you do work on technologies to help Iranian communicate and circumvent censorship? We’d love to hear from you. You can contact Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai securely on Signal at +1 917 257 1382, Wickr/Telegram/Wire @lorenzofb, or email lorenzofb@vice.com

In the blog post, Whittaker explained how anyone can set up a proxy server, which would allow users in Iran to use the app with an Android phone. The blog post also included detailed step-by-step instructions that people can use to run proxies.

At the end of the process to set up a proxy server, the person who set it up gets a URL that starts with “signal.tube.” From the point of view of an Iranian person who wants to use Signal, connecting to the proxy should just require clicking on that link. In a worst case scenario, Signal has instructions on how to use proxies as well

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That’s why Signal is asking people to advertise the fact that they are running proxies by using the hashtag  #IRanASignalProxy, so people in Iran can get those links. 

Signal had already set up a way for people to act as proxies last year, after Iran’s government blocked the app. The organization has now updated the instructions and published them on GitHub as well.

“Like everyone else in the world, people in Iran deserve privacy. We hope this helps,” Whittaker wrote. 

Signal did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Nariman Gharib, an Iranian opposition activist based in the UK, told Motherboard that Signal’s proposal is “a great idea.”

“I hope the government can’t fingerprint their proxies. BUT I believe the community can spend their time and resources to create Tor bridges, so people can use it for other apps too,” Gharib said in an online chat. 

UPDATE, Sept. 23, 1:38 p.m. ET: this story has been updated to include more details about how the Signal proxy servers can be accessed from within Iran.

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