Cyber Surveillance and Digital Authoritarianism in Iran

By Shahram Akbarzadeh, Amin Naeni, Ihsan Yilmaz and Galib Bashirov - 14 March 2024
Cyber Surveillance and Digital Authoritarianism in Iran

The authoritarian regime in Iran has invested heavily in digital surveillance to identify and silence voices of dissent. Key institutions have emerged to develop new legal precedence, new technologies and new mechanisms of detection to capture cyber activists. Iranian authorities have learned from other digital authoritarian regimes, such as China, and have improved related technologies to exercise control over the internet and attempt to build a firewall around internet users in Iran. While dissident voices continue to be heard, the ruling regime has intensified its campaign of control in cyberspace. The battle over Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) is the latest episode in this digital authoritarian drive for control. The ruling regime’s policies on cyberspace demonstrates its significance in the eyes of the authorities for the longevity of authoritarianism. 

Policy Recommendations

  • Western powers, particularly the US and the EU, should foster a framework of international collaboration among democratic nations and human rights and cybersecurity organizations to raise awareness about the pervasive surveillance system in Iran. Collaborative efforts should span mutually orchestrated research initiatives, foster the seamless exchange of crucial information, and support the strategic deployment of advocacy campaigns.
  • International human rights organizations should initiate a proactive advocacy campaign to secure the recognition and robust protection of digital human rights in influential international forums. Western powers should help by leading the efforts to formalize the acknowledgment of fundamental rights, including online privacy and freedom of expression, as fundamental pillars in the digital realm.
  • Digital authoritarianism is a growing global concern that is aided and abetted by the proliferation of censorship and surveillance systems. The EU should address this challenge by strategically supporting and amplifying the efforts of established and secure VPNs. By expanding access to these reliable tools, a broader spectrum of individuals in Iran can benefit from enhanced online privacy and circumvent digital surveillance.
  • The United States and Canada should implement targeted sanctions directed at individuals and entities actively involved in the creation and sale of VPNs that contravene established human rights principles. This endeavour can start with identifying private enterprises collaborating with the Iranian regime to facilitate the expansion of surveillance systems, including those related to VPNs.


Photo by Sora Shimazaki