One of the lesser known features of the internet is the ability to create private networks using IP addresses reserved for exactly this purpose.
These addresses come under the IP block 10.0.0.0/8 and allow a total of almost 17 millon different hosts. Anybody can use them to set up a private network for their office, home or, in this case, nation.
Today, Collin Anderson, an internet security researcher funded by the University of Pennsylvania, says he has gathered evidence proving that Iran is using this approach on a national scale to create a private internet that is widely accessible within the country but hidden from outside.
“Iran has broken from commonplace Internet addressing standards to create a private network that is only accessible within the country,” he says.
Anderson gathered his evidence using two hosts based in Tehran. He has obviously had some significant help from inside Iran to carry out this work and acknowledges the help of a number of individuals he is unable name because of “self-censorship and intimidation” within Iran and beyond. That’s clearly difficult and dangerous work that must be applauded.
To assess the extent of the private network, he attempted to make a connection with all 17 million possible private addresses inside the country.
He was able to do this successfully with some 46,000 of these private addresses inside Iran.
Many of the responses included information that allowed Anderson to identify the host. He says organisations involved include as the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry Of Education and the National Internet Development Agency of Iran.
All this is strong evidence that Iran’s private internet is widely used within the country.
None of this should come as is a particular surprise. Anderson says Iran has publicly announced its intention to create its own ‘halal’ or permissible internet.
But the discovery that it has pursued this goal aggressively raises some important questions. Anderson has mapped the potential size of the ‘halal’ internet but not the amount of content it contains. So an important question is how much content is available inside Iran.
What’s more, his data is a single snapshot of the network taken in August and early September this year. So it is not possible to tell whether the network is growing or how quickly.
Iran has long prevented its citizens from having free access to the internet using filtering and censorship. So perhaps the most important question is whether Iran intends to continue with this kind of filtering or to cut off its citizens entirely, leaving them with access only to the ‘halal’ internet.
That could have significant implications for the spread of information within the country and the role of social media.
Presumably, Anderson will publish further updates as soon as he becomes aware of them.
Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1209.6398: The Hidden Internet of Iran