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Protests in Iran lead to a surge in downloads of Canadian VPN tools

Ryan Dochuk, TunnelBear. CEO poses in their Toronto, Ont. offices on Thursday, January 11, 2017. TunnelBear's VPN software is being downloaded in large numbers in Iran as people seek to get around banned websites.

J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

Recent protests in Iran over economic policies are giving a boost to two Canadian companies offering virtual private networks and other software that can circumvent government moves to censor internet traffic.

Virtual private networks, or VPNs, can be used to mask the online IP address that could identify a user. Ryan Dochuk, co-founder and chief executive of Toronto's TunnelBear, said that, over the past few years, the company's software has been downloaded by people who have experienced censorship in countries including Turkey, Venezuela and Uganda.

In Iran, as protests that began in late December spread throughout the country, the government has been blocking an increasing number of websites. People have been turning to TunnelBear to continue to get access to chat rooms and social media, Mr. Dochuk said.

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"TunnelBear is an application that people are downloading today en masse in Iran. We would estimate that just over the last week … over 100,000 extra users have come from Iran and downloaded TunnelBear to ensure they can continue to get access to social media and the outside world and stay connected during the protests."

Mr. Dochuk said the company is still receiving reports from Iranian users that social-media services Instagram and Telegram are being blocked there.

"It's quite simple. When you put an app on your phone, all the information that's leaving your phone or your computer is encrypted as it leaves that device," Mr. Dochuk says. "That information is then sent to a server that is in some other location in the world and that is basically before it goes out to the internet.

"[TunnelBear's application] makes sure that you're browsing more securely by encrypting all the information when it goes through public WiFi."

Toronto-based Psiphon, a company founded in 2006, has a circumvention tool – a secure tunnelling software that allows users to access websites and content that may otherwise be blocked. It too has seen a spike in use recently coming from Iran.

Alexis Gantous, who handles business development and analytics at Psiphon, says its product is more accurately described as tunnelling software, rather than a VPN service. This is because it is able to employ a variety of different network protocols to tunnel and disguise a person's traffic; using a VPN proxy is just one of them. The other available protocols are what make it especially difficult to detect and differentiate Psiphon traffic, and thus block their connection.

Mr. Gantous said Psiphon typically sees 35,000 to 40,000 worldwide installs a day across all its apps. This average increased to over 700,000 a day from Dec. 31 to Jan. 3, with almost all of that surge attributable to Iranian users. Data from Iran transferring over its network increased almost fivefold over the same period.

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"Our daily users from Iran increased almost tenfold for mobile platforms and even doubled on Windows, when comparing to typical user numbers. We don't have complete information yet, but it looks like between eight to 10 million unique daily users," he said.

Mr. Gantous said the company has observed spikes in usage throughout the world before, during protests and elections for example, but this particularly massive increase in users can most likely be attributed to Iran increasing their censorship of social-media sites.

Mr. Dochuk at TunnelBear said the company's business model normally allows users to get 500MBs of data for free and upgrade for a fee if they want unlimited data. But in the case of Iran, it has provided additional free data for all users – an offer it has had for the past couple years.

"In general, it's our policy not to generate revenue from countries experiencing censorship events. We provide this service because it aligns with TunnelBear's belief that the internet is better when it's open and uncensored," Mr. Dochuk said. "We have added additional network capacity to handle the demand."

Mr. Gantous's company is seeing the same thing. He said the situation in Iran has definitely caused capacity issues for any network active in the region.

"We had to increase our network's capacity in order to maintain performance during the large influx of people from Iran."

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