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How an app developed by U of T's Citizen Lab helped Iranians circumvent internet censorship

This demonstration outside the Iranian embassy in Paris on Jan. 6 was part of a worldwide call to support the national uprising of the Iranian people (photo by Siavosh Hosseini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Psiphon, a firewall-circumvention app developed at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, reported a massive increase in users over a five-day period in late December and early January, with almost all of new users coming from Iran during unprecedented protests there.
 
The demonstrations garnered international headlines after Iranians took to the streets in Tehran and other major centres to protest high prices and corruption. At least 25 people died and more than 1,000 were arrested during the protests, according to Reuters.
 
The Iranian government responded to the protests by blocking internet access, including to social apps. In the five days from Dec. 30 to Jan. 3, Psiphon –  an app that bypasses state internet controls –  saw 700,000 new installations each day, instead of the typical 25,000 to 40,000 new installations daily, the Toronto Star reports.
 
Citizen Lab is based at U of T's Munk School of Global Affairs and focuses on research on cybersecurity. The software for Psiphon was created in 2006.
 
“At the time, there were very few easy-to-use means for citizens to bypass censorship,” Ronald Deibert, the director of Citizen Lab, told the Star. “We created a system based on private social networks of trust.”
 
Psiphon spokesman Alexis Gantous agreed.  “Blocking of social media is most often the driver behind usage spikes that we see around the world,” he told the Star.  ‘We’ve always been aimed at supporting internet freedom.”