Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Google’s Jigsaw, with U.S. government money, is bringing a VPN to Iran

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Though Yasmin Green fled Iran with her parents at 3 years old, she has never been more involved in the struggles of its people.

Recently elevated to chief executive of an elite research team at Google, Green, now 40, has refocused that New York group, known as Jigsaw, on aiding oppressed populations as well as fending off attacks on more open societies.

Now one of the unit’s products, a free virtual private network (VPN) that lets users hide their internet tracks better than most paid versions, is surging in Iran, helping participants in the most widespread protests there in years evade a growing crackdown on communications. The protests have raged for weeks after the death in custody of a 22-year-old woman arrested by “morality police” for showing too much of her hair. Security forces have killed dozens, with far more critics detained and others afraid to communicate.

The VPN, called Outline, is available on its own as an app or web download and in versions distributed by third parties such as nthLink, a company that receives U.S. government funding. The firm says monthly users of Outline in Iran have soared tenfold in two months, to 2.4 million unique devices in September.

The government backing for nthLink comes as the Biden administration steps up its efforts to assist Iranians supportive of the protests. Top White House officials have said they are trying to heed the lessons of the 2009 Iran protests over disputed elections, when government forces brutally cracked down, but the Obama administration did not weigh in publicly for the first several days of the protests before eventually condemning the Iranian government.

This time around, the White House took a stronger stance from the beginning but is being careful not to take attention away from the Iranian protesters, a senior White House official said on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. U.S. officials feel they can be most helpful to protesters through their public messaging and by prodding tech companies to provide services — particularly personal communication tools, such as WhatsApp and Signal — as the Iranian government continues to crack down.

As part of that effort, the White House has relaxed sanctions and made it clear to other tech companies that they want them to serve those in Iran that are not connected to the government.

At the same time, nonprofit groups, including those behind encrypted messenger Signal and the alternative internet communications system Tor, are redoubling their work in a cat-and-mouse game with sophisticated Iranian surveillance forces. Signal has recruited volunteers to operate what are known as proxy servers that act as intermediaries to hide the use of Signal from Iranian telecommunications providers.

“We’re doing what’s in our power, and our commitment is to be ready and available when the issues outside of our control are resolved,” said Signal President Meredith Whittaker.

Green’s team is trying to keep Outline effective under Iranian officials’ noses.

Google founder Larry Page “used to say all Google products ought to be like a toothbrush, where everybody uses it at least twice a day,” Green said in her first extended interview since her July promotion. “We changed the metaphor to an air bag. People don’t need it often, but when they do, they absolutely need it to work.”

Green previously oversaw the development of other tools that became important in the Middle East and to its diaspora, including a technique called the redirect method, which targets people who are searching online for ways to join extremist groups with counterprogramming, such as testimonials from grieving relatives of dead suicide bombers. Jigsaw also makes Intra, an Android app for reaching blocked websites.

Not long after Russia invaded Ukraine, Jigsaw began efforts to “pre-bunk” anticipated false narratives about incoming Ukrainian refugees, a project Green said will expand to other areas in a bid to inoculate people against disinformation.

“In cybersecurity, mis- and disinformation, harassment, and extremism, we are confident we can continue to innovate there,” Green said.

Outline is based on previous open-source projects and makes its code public, reassuring those who worry about back doors.

Its rapid takeup in Iran has been especially gratifying to Green as a virtual return to a country she re-engaged with after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., she heard it described as part of an Axis of Evil. At the time living in England and thinking of herself as British, she began visiting relatives in Iran, learning how they saw the world and later thinking about how technology could aid them.

“There’s a fear and subjugation that is not familiar” to Westerners, she said.

Returning to work at Google, she found that knowledge helped stoke interest in figuring out ways to help break through government limits on communication. “Just my being in the room changed the nature of the discussion,” she said. “I was advocating for Iran.”

Married to a Jewish filmmaker, Green also sits on the board of the Anti-Defamation League, a nonprofit known for fighting antisemitism that also works to counter harassment and extremism.

After working in other roles at the company, in 2011 she joined Jigsaw’s earlier incarnation, Google Ideas, as the first employee under Jared Cohen, a former State Department tech evangelist close to then-CEO Eric Schmidt. She was attracted in part by the work Cohen had done in support of the 2009 Iran protests, recalled Jigsaw executive Scott Carpenter, and she helped scrounge up engineers from other parts of the company by claiming that Outline was farther along than it really was.

“Fake it ’til you make it,” Green explained. “Nothing brings endorsement like momentum.”

Green got the top job this year after Cohen left for an investment bank.

While Google has been increasing its investment in the group, that doesn’t mean all its experiments get adopted by Google proper, one of the most powerful companies on earth, or its sister companies within parent Alphabet. YouTube, for one, remains a constant source of radicalizing material. Green said some of Jigsaw’s work has influenced YouTube policies, but neither unit would give specifics.

Jigsaw’s mission in Iran is different from what it does in most countries because both the Iranian government and the population are technologically advanced. According to some reports, a majority of Iranians already use VPNs to conceal which sites they are visiting on the web.

But if too many people use the same server as a base for a VPN, the traffic to that server will stand out, and the government operators will block it, according to Gustaf Björksten, chief technologist at nonprofit Access Now. “VPNs that are large enough to be identified by the authorities as a target, but not large enough to have a significant and constantly changing pool of servers, are more likely to be effectively blocked,” Björksten said by email.

Outline is simple to install, and nthLink’s version adds more ease and flexibility. Either lets a person run a VPN from a server at home or one based at a cloud provider such as Digital Ocean, which is in Outline’s default configuration. Users can send keys for access to a handful of trusted friends, keeping overall usage below the radar.

But it’s not perfect. Outline is being detected in many cases, especially when Iranians use Digital Ocean, said Amir Rashidi, director of digital rights and security at Miaan Group, an Iran-focused nonprofit in Texas. “They are blocking every single channel of communications,” Rashidi said, including Meta’s WhatsApp and even some games whose messaging function dissidents were using to communicate. “We need developers to study how Iran is blocking their tools.”

Rashidi said further easing of U.S. sanctions could help: Cloud companies would then be more willing to accept payment from within Iran, helping dissident communications. The White House official said the U.S. has already provided exceptions for payments for personal communication tools, but acknowledged that some companies are being overly cautious in applying that.

Elon Musk recently tweeted that his Starlink service was functioning in Iran, but he has not said how many receivers are in the country. The White House said the figure is small.

As for the efforts to keep spreading Outline and beat the blockages, Jigsaw has been running a war room that convenes every day “to extend the cat and mouse,” Carpenter said.

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