Internet service providers (ISP) acting on behalf of the Iranian government have recently begun blocking encrypted internet services that rely on the secure sockets layer (SSL) protocol, curbing the use of virtual private networks (VPN), a number of email providers, and other communication tools ahead of next week’s parliamentary elections.
A total SSL blockage would prevent the use of any online service whose address begins with ‘https,’ thus cutting off internet users in Iran from one of the Web’s most widely used and trusted encryption connections.
According to Reuters, the move means that Internet users in Iran weren’t able to access encrypted websites operating outside of Iran.
Both Google and the TOR Project, whose services rely on SSL to operate, reported significant drop-offs in traffic. It is unclear why, but the blockage eventually stopped and traffic has since returned to pre-blockage levels. Reuters reported that the cessation may have been the result of complaints from Iranian politicians and businesses affected by the blocking.
The consensus among some monitoring the situation, however, is that this was merely a brief experiment as the Iranian government attempts to broaden the scope of its internal surveillance efforts and further isolate their Internet from the rest of the world.
“The government is testing different tools,” said Voice of America’s Hamed Behravan. “They might have wanted to see the public reaction.”
Researchers working on the TOR network, the anonymization used widely in Iran, were aware of the SSL blocking as it was happening. They have since designed and deployed a new system that doesn’t rely on SSL. Iranian users of TOR’s new tool have reportedly been using it with success since TOR got the word out.