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Iran’s regime exploits coronavirus outbreak to spy on citizens

Iran's Mask application tracks the geolocation of users
Iran's Mask application tracks the geolocation of users

Reporting by PMOI/MEK  

Iran, April 22, 2020—Iranian regime president Hassan Rouhani recently introduced a new mobile application that supposedly helps in contact-tracing and containing the spread of the novel coronavirus. But given the regime’s history, this can yet be another scheme to spy on Iranian citizens by rulers that are in constant fear of nationwide protests.

On Sunday, Rouhani introduced “Mask,” a COVID-19 screening app. Rouhani said, “In today’s [Coronavirus Task Force] session, the Health Ministry made remarks that show with new methods we can continue screening as well as identify people who are infected and have red conditions. The ministry has worked with Sharif University to prepare an application. This application will also access information from the health ministry.” The regime president further said that a group of people have agreed to install the application and to leave their phones on and their Bluetooth components active and are ready to transfer their information.

“With this application, we will be able to understand which individuals have the conditions of being infected, which means they are red, and which individuals are yellow,” Rouhani added.

Contact-tracing and collocation have become a solution for tracking and controlling the spread of the virus, and several governments are either testing or speculating the launch of contact tracing apps amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Key to the launch of contact-tracing applications is the privacy of users. Governments will have to find a balance that will enable them to control the spread of the pandemic while at the same time avoid impinging on the rights and privacy of their citizens.

But the Iranian regime has no such reservations. According to the state-run Mehr news agency, which interviewed a government specialist, presently more than a million people have installed the Mask application on their phones. According to this specialist, “This software can control the movements of the users.”

Contact-tracing does not require tracking movement

Researchers in several countries have already developed solutions that obviate the need to collect geolocation information from users to control the spread of the virus. These solutions, which are mostly open-source and open for independent auditing, use localized methods to create collocation databases without registering geographical locations on database servers.

One solution that has gained traction and is also endorsed by Google and Apple is to use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to create collocation databases. Devices that install this app will generate BLE signals at regular intervals and other devices with the app will register those signals to create their own local collocation databases without the need to send information to central, government-controlled databases. Only when a user tests positive for COVID-19, they send their list of generated tokens, all anonymous and devoid of any geolocation data, to a server that will in turn broadcast it to other users of the application.

In this scheme, no personal information, no device information, and no geographical location are exchanged between users and application servers.

However, according to the regime’s own experts, their application will be able to track movement, which means the Bluetooth component mentioned by Rouhani is either a lie or just one of many technologies used by the application.

And the number of installs shows that the regime is fully leveraging the fear and panic caused by the pandemic to “convince” users to install the application on their phones.

The regime’s dark past in spying on citizens

This is not the first time the regime is using the coronavirus outbreak as a tool for surveillance and espionage. In March, the regime released AC19, an application that claimed to detect coronavirus infections. After its release, the regime’s Health Ministry sent a mass SMS message to all Iranians urging them to install the app to check potential COVID-19 symptoms.

The app would let users register using their phone number and asked a series of questions related to coronavirus symptoms. The idea was to let Iranians determine if they had severe symptoms, in order to prevent citizens from needlessly flooding local hospitals.

But the app also requested access to real-time geo-location details, something that has nothing to do with coronavirus symptoms. The application would upload this data to its servers. Further examination showed that the app was developed by Smart Land Strategy, an Iranian startup with ties to the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and known for launching spyware-infected versions of Telegram, a messaging app with more than 40 million users in Iran.

AC19 was eventually removed from Google Play Store.

Weaponizing the COVID-19 pandemic

The regime’s supposed effort to launch a contact-tracing app comes while officials are refraining from taking the most basic measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. At the behest of regime supreme leader Ali Khamenei, Rouhani has reopened Iran’s economy and sent the people back to work while the number of coronavirus cases in Iran has shown no sign of flattening. The regime has also refrained from using its vast fortune to extend the quarantines.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, the Iranian regime has only used the crisis as an excuse to mount repression. From sending 300,000 Basij militiamen to ostensibly “sanitize” neighborhoods to deploying the anti-riot units with “fighting coronavirus” banners, the regime has taken advantage of the situation to increase security presence across a country that only months ago had seen nationwide protests that called for the ouster of the ruling mullahs.

In this light, it is only obvious that the so-called screening application is just another piece of the repression and espionage puzzle.