Government Surveillance and Counter-Surveillance on Social and Mobile Media: The Case of Iran (2009)




Iran, Surveillance, Counter-surveillance, Visibility, Iranian Green Movement, Social Media, Mobile Communications

How to Cite

Kadivar, J. (2015). Government Surveillance and Counter-Surveillance on Social and Mobile Media: The Case of Iran (2009). M/C Journal, 18(2).
Vol. 18 No. 2 (2015): technique
Published 2015-04-29

Human history has witnessed varied surveillance and counter-surveillance activities from time immemorial. Human beings could not surveille others effectively and accurately without the technology of their era. Technology is a tool that can empower both people and governments. The outcomes are different based on the users’ intentions and aims. 2,500 years ago, Sun Tzu noted that ‘If you know both yourself and your enemy, you can win numerous (literally, "a hundred") battles without jeopardy’. His words still ring true. To be a good surveiller and counter-surveiller it is essential to know both sides, and in order to be good at these activities access to technology is vital. There is no doubt that knowledge is power, and without technology to access the information, it is impossible to be powerful. As we become more expert at technology, we will learn what makes surveillance and counter-surveillance more effective, and will be more powerful.

“Surveillance” is one of the most important aspects of living in the convergent media environment. This essay illustrates government surveillance and counter-surveillance during the Iranian Green Movement (2009) on social and mobile media.  The Green Movement refers to a non-violent movement that arose after the disputed presidential election on June 2009. After that Iran was facing its most serious political crisis since the 1979 revolution. Claims of vote fraud triggered massive street protests. Many took to the streets with “Green” signs, chanting slogans such as ‘the government lied’, and ‘where is my vote?’  

There is no doubt that social and mobile media has played an important role in Iran’s contemporary politics. According to Internet World Stats (IWS) Internet users in 2009 account for approximately 48.5 per cent of the population of Iran. In 2009, Iran had 30.2 million mobile phone users (Freedom House), and 72 cellular subscriptions for every 100 people (World Bank). Today, while Iran has the 19th-largest population in the world, its blogosphere holds the third spot in terms of number of users, just behind the United States and China (Beth Elson et al.). In this essay the use of social and mobile media (technology) is not debated, but the extent of this use, and who, why and how it is used, is clearly scrutinised.

Visibility and Surveillance

There have been different kinds of surveillance for a very long time. However, all types of surveillance are based on the notion of “visibility”.  Previous studies show that visibility is not a new term (Foucault Discipline). The new things in the new era, are its scale, scope and complicated ways to watch others without being watched, which are not limited to a specific time, space and group, and are completely different from previous instruments for watching (Andrejevic). As Meikle and Young (146) have mentioned ‘networked digital media bring with them a new kind of visibility’, based on different kinds of technology. Internet surveillance has important implications in politics to control, protect, and influence (Marx Ethics; Castells; Fuchs Critique). Surveillance has been improved during its long history, and evolved from very simple spying and watching to complicated methods of “iSpy” (Andrejevic).

To understand the importance of visibility and its relationship with surveillance, it is essential to study visibility in conjunction with the notion of “panopticon” and its contradictory functions. Foucault uses Bentham's notion of panopticon that carries within itself visibility and transparency to control others. “Gaze” is a central term in Bentham’s view. ‘Bentham thinks of a visibility organised entirely around a dominating, overseeing gaze’ (Foucault Eye). Moreover, Thomson (Visibility 11) notes that we are living in the age of ‘normalizing the power of the gaze’ and it is clear that the influential gaze is based on powerful means to see others.

Lyon (Surveillance 2) explains that ‘surveillance is any collection and processing of personal data, whether identifiable or not, for the purpose of influencing or managing those whose data have been granted…’. He mentions that today the most important means of surveillance reside in computer power which allows collected data to be sorted, matched, retrieved, processed, marketed and circulated.

Nowadays, the Internet has become ubiquitous in many parts of the world. So, the changes in people’s interactions have influenced their lives. Fuchs (Introduction 15) argues that ‘information technology enables surveillance at a distance…in real time over networks at high transmission speed’. Therefore, visibility touches different aspects of people’s lives and living in a “glasshouse” has caused a lot of fear and anxiety about privacy.

Iran’s Green Movement is one of many cases for studying surveillance and counter-surveillance technologies in social and mobile media. 

Government Surveillance on Social and Mobile Media in Iran, 2009

In 2009 the Iranian government controlled technology that allowed them to monitor, track, and limit access to the Internet, social media and mobiles communication, which has resulted in the surveillance of Green Movement’s activists.

The Iranian government had improved its technical capabilities to monitor the people’s behavior on the Internet long before the 2009 election. The election led to an increase in online surveillance. Using social media the Iranian government became even more powerful than it was before the election. Social media was a significant factor in strengthening the government’s power.

In the months after the election the virtual atmosphere became considerably more repressive. The intensified filtering of the Internet and implementation of more advanced surveillance systems strengthened the government’s position after the election. The Open Net Initiative revealed that the Internet censorship system in Iran is one of the most comprehensive and sophisticated censorship systems in the world. It emphasized that ‘Advances in domestic technical capacity have contributed to the implementation of a centralized filtering strategy and a reduced reliance on Western technologies’.

On the other hand, the authorities attempted to block all access to political blogs (Jaras), either through cyber-security methods or through threats (Tusa). The Centre for Investigating Organized Cyber Crimes, which was founded in 2007 partly ‘to investigate and confront social and economic offenses on the Internet’ (Cyber Police), became increasingly important over the course of 2009 as the government combated the opposition’s online activities (Beth Elson et al. 16). Training of "senior Internet lieutenants" to confront Iran's "virtual enemies online" was another attempt that the Intelligence minister announced following the protests (Iran Media Program).

In 2009 the Iranian government enacted the Computer Crime Law (Jaras). According to this law the Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Websites is legally empowered to identify sites that carry forbidden content and report that information to TCI and other major ISPs for blocking (Freedom House). In the late fall of 2009, the government started sending threatening and warning text messages to protesters about their presence in the protests (BBC). Attacking, blocking, hacking and hijacking of the domain names of some opposition websites such as Jaras and Kaleme besides a number of non-Iranian sites such as Twitter were among the other attempts of the Iranian Cyber Army (Jaras).

It is also said that the police and security forces arrested dissidents identified through photos and videos posted on the social media that many imagined had empowered them. Furthermore, the online photos of the active protesters were posted on different websites, asking people to identify them (Valizadeh).

In late June 2009 the Iranian government was intentionally permitting Internet traffic to and from social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter so that it could use a sophisticated practice called Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) to collect information about users. It was reportedly also applying the same technology to monitor mobile phone communications (Beth Elson et al. 15).

On the other hand, to cut communication between Iranians inside and outside the country, Iran slowed down the Internet dramatically (Jaras). Iran also blocked access to Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, Twitter and many blogs before, during and after the protests. Moreover, in 2009, text message services were shut down for over 40 days, and mobile phone subscribers could not send or receive text messages regardless of their mobile carriers. Subsequently it was disrupted on a temporary basis immediately before and during key protests days.

It was later discovered that the Nokia Siemens Network provided the government with surveillance technologies (Wagner; Iran Media Program). The Iranian government built a complicated system that enabled it to monitor, track and intercept what was said on mobile phones. Nokia Siemens Network confirmed it supplied Iran with the technology needed to monitor, control, and read local telephone calls [...] The product allowed authorities to monitor any communications across a network, including voice calls, text messaging, instant messages, and web traffic (Cellan-Jones). 

Media sources also reported that two Chinese companies, Huawei and ZTE, provided surveillance technologies to the government. The Nic Payamak and Saman Payamak websites, that provide mass text messaging services, also reported that operator Hamrah Aval commonly blocked texts with words such as meeting, location, rally, gathering, election and parliament (Iran Media Program).

Visibility and Counter-Surveillance

The panopticon is not limited to the watchers. Similarly, new kinds of panopticon and visibility are not confined to government surveillance. Foucault points out that ‘the seeing machine was once a sort of dark room into which individuals spied; it has become a transparent building in which the exercise of power may be supervised by society as a whole’ (Discipline 207). What is important is Foucault's recognition that transparency, not only of those who are being observed but also of those who are observing, is central to the notion of the panopticon (Allen) and ‘any member of society will have the right to come and see with his own eyes how schools, hospitals, factories, and prisons function’ (Foucault, Discipline 207).  

Counter-surveillance is the process of detecting and mitigating hostile surveillance (Burton). Therefore, while the Internet is a surveillance instrument that enables governments to watch people, it also improves the capacity to counter-surveille, and draws public attention to governments’ injustice. As Castells (185) notes the Internet could be used by citizens to watch their government as an instrument of control, information, participation, and even decision-making, from the bottom up.

With regards to the role of citizens in counter-surveillance we can draw on Jay Rosen’s view of Internet users as ‘the people formerly known as the audience’.  In counter-surveillance it can be said that passive citizens (formerly the audience) have turned into active citizens. And this change was becoming impossible without mobile and social media platforms. These new techniques and technologies have empowered people and given them the opportunity to have new identities. When Thompson wrote ‘the exercise of power in modern societies remains in many ways shrouded in secrecy and hidden from the public gaze’ (Media 125), perhaps he could not imagine that one day people can gaze at the politicians, security forces and the police through the use of the Internet and mobile devices.

Furthermore, while access to mobile media allows people to hold authorities accountable for their uses and abuses of power (Breen 183), social media can be used as a means of representation, organization of collective action, mobilization, and drawing attention to police brutality and reasons for political action (Gerbaudo).

There is no doubt that having creativity and using alternative platforms are important aspects in counter-surveillance. For example, images of Lt. Pike “Pepper Spray Cop” from the University of California became the symbol of the senselessness of police brutality during the Occupy Movement (Shaw).

Iranians’ Counter-Surveillance on Social and Mobile Media, 2009

Iran’s Green movement (2009) triggered a lot of discussions about the role of technology in social movements. In this regard, there are two notable attitudes about the role of technology: techno-optimistic (Shriky and Castells) and techno-pessimistic (Morozov and Gladwell) views should be taken into account. While techno-optimists overrated the role of social media, techno-pessimists underestimated its role. However, there is no doubt that technology has played a great role as a counter-surveillance tool amongst Iranian people in Iran’s contemporary politics.

Apart from the academic discussions between techno-optimists and techno-pessimists, there have been numerous debates about the role of new technologies in Iran during the Green Movement. This subject has received interest from different corners of the world, including Western countries, Iranian authorities, opposition groups, and also some NGOs. However, its role as a means of counter-surveillance has not received adequate attention.

As the tools of counter-surveillance are more or less the tools of surveillance, protesters learned from the government to use the same techniques to challenge authority on social media.

Establishing new websites (such as JARAS, RASA, Kalemeh, and Iran green voice) or strengthening some previous ones (such as Saham, Emrooz, Norooz), also activating different platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts to broadcast the voice of the Iranian Green Movement and neutralize the government’s propaganda were the most important ways to empower supporters of Iran’s Green Movement in counter-surveillance.

Reporters Without Borders issued a statement, saying that ‘the new media, and particularly social networks, have given populations collaborative tools with which they can change the social order’. It is also mentioned that despite efforts by the Iranian government to prevent any reporting of the protests and due to considerable pressure placed on foreign journalists inside Iran, social media played a significant role in sending the messages and images of the movement to the outside world (Axworthy). However, at that moment, many thought that Twitter performed a liberating role for Iranian dissenters. For example, Western media heralded the Green Movement in Iran as a “Twitter revolution” fuelled by information and communication technologies (ICTs) and social media tools (Carrieri et al. 4). “The Revolution Will Be Twittered” was the first in a series of blog posts published by Andrew Sullivan a few hours after the news of the protests was released.

According to the researcher’s observation the numbers of Twitter users inside Iran who tweeted was very limited in 2009 and social media was most useful in the dissemination of information, especially from those inside Iran to outsiders. Mobile phones were mostly influential as an instrument firstly used for producing contents (images and videos) and secondly for the organisation of protests. There were many photos and videos that were filmed by very simple mobile cell phones, uploaded by ordinary people onto YouTube and other platforms. The links were shared many times on Twitter and Facebook and released by mainstream media. The most frequently circulated story from the Iranian protests was a video of Neda Agha-Sultan. Her final moments were captured by some bystanders with mobile phone cameras and rapidly spread across the global media and the Internet. It showed that the camera-phone had provided citizens with a powerful means, allowing for the creation and instant sharing of persuasive personalised eyewitness records with mobile and globalised target populations (Anden-Papadopoulos).

Protesters used another technique, DDOS (distributed denial of service attacks), for political protest in cyber space. Anonymous people used DDOS to overload a website with fake requests, making it unavailable for users and disrupting the sites set as targets (McMillan) in effect, shutting down the site. DDOS is an important counter-surveillance activity by grassroots activists or hackers. It was a cyber protest that knocked the main Iranian governmental websites off-line and caused crowdsourcing and false trafficking. Amongst them were Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's supreme leader’s websites and those which belong to or are close to the government or security forces, including news agencies (Fars, IRNA, Press TV…), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, the Police, and the Ministry of the Interior.

Moreover, as authorities uploaded the pictures of protesters onto different platforms to find and arrest them, in some cities people started to put the pictures, phone numbers and addresses of members of security forces and plain clothes police officers who attacked them during the protests and asked people to identify and report the others. They also wanted people to send information about suspects who infringed human rights.


To sum up, visibility, surveillance and counter-surveillance are not new phenomena. What is new is the technology, which increased their complexity. As Foucault (Discipline 200) mentioned ‘visibility is a trap’, so being visible would be the weakness of those who are being surveilled in the power struggle. In the convergent era, in order to be more powerful, both surveillance and counter-surveillance activities aim for more visibility. Although both attempt to use the same means (technology) to trap the other side, the differences are in their subjects, objects, goals and results.

While in surveillance, visibility of the many by the few is mostly for the purpose of control and influence in undemocratic ways, in counter-surveillance, the visibility of the few by the many is mostly through democratic ways to secure more accountability and transparency from the governments.

As mentioned in the case of Iran’s Green Movement, the scale and scope of visibility are different in surveillance and counter-surveillance. The importance of what Shaw wrote about Sydney occupy counter-surveillance, applies to other places, such as Iran. She has stressed that ‘protesters and police engaged in a dance of technology and surveillance with one another. Both had access to technology, but there were uncertainties about the extent of technology and its proficient use…’

In Iran (2009), both sides (government and activists) used technology and benefited from digital networked platforms, but their levels of access and domains of influence were different, which was because the sources of power, information and wealth were divided asymmetrically between them. Creativity was important for both sides to make others more visible, and make themselves invisible. Also, sharing information to make the other side visible played an important role in these two areas.


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Author Biography

Jamileh Kadivar

Jamileh Kadivar is a freelance journalist and political analyst. She holds an MA in Social Media  from the University of Westminster and a PhD is in Political Science from the University of Tehran. She used to be a lecturer in the Women and Family Studies department in Alzahra University in Tehran.