Beware of Psiphon, the CIA’s tech tool to support and foment global protests
By Kit Klarenberg
Since foreign-backed unrest broke out in Iran in mid-September, Western news outlets have frequently highlighted the role of Psiphon, a free, open-source smartphone application and computer program that allows users to bypass restrictions on websites and online resources in helping troublemakers to organize and coordinate their activities and to send and receive messages to and from the outside world.
In the process, Psiphon has received untold amounts of influential free advertising, and some Iranians — along with residents of wider West Asia — will no doubt have been encouraged to download the software.
However, not a single mainstream source has yet acknowledged Psiphon’s ghostly origins, let alone the malevolent goals it serves and the sinister ends to which it can be put by its sponsors in the American intelligence community.
Psiphon was launched in 2009. Stated to support anti-government elements in countries the company considers “enemies of the internet,” the resource uses a combination of secure communication and obfuscation technologies, including VPNs, web proxies, and Secure Shell (SSH) protocols. ), allowing users to effectively set up their own private servers that their own government cannot monitor.
During Psiphon’s lifetime, it was funded and distributed by a variety of haunted organizations.
For example, for several years it was sponsored by ASL19, which was founded in 2013 by an Iranian expat Ali Bangi to capitalize on the huge US funds that poured into “internet freedom” initiatives after the Arab Spring.
A June 2011 New York Times investigation into Washington’s push for “internet freedom” concluded that all of these efforts are aimed at deploying “shadow” internet and cellular systems that dissidents can use to get out of the reach of governments in to communicate with countries like Iran, Syria and Libya. ”
Bangi’s closeness to the US government was made abundantly clear when he attended the annual White House Nowruz celebration in 2016, which was invariably a coming-out party for elite, state-sponsored “regime change” activists.
Such high-profile performances, coupled with his status as a fixture at tech conferences and digital rights events, cemented his place as a “rock star” figure within the Iranian diaspora community.
Bangi was nevertheless forced to resign from ASL19 in 2018 after ending up in court in Canada on charges of sexual assault and violent incarceration.
A resulting profile in the tech industry magazine The Verge claimed he had encouraged a culture of widespread drug use, sexism, harassment and bullying within the organization, with female employees a particular target of his ire. On several occasions he has been aggressive and even violent towards employees.
In 2019, after Bangi and ASL19 were out of the picture, Psiphon began receiving millions from the Open Technology Fund, set up seven years earlier by Radio Free Asia (RFA), which in turn was funded by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1948. was founded after it was officially authorized to engage in “black operations” including propaganda, economic warfare, sabotage, subversion and “support of underground resistance movements”.
In 2007, the CIA website ranked RFA and other “psychological warfare” initiatives such as Radio Free Europe and Voice of America as “the longest-running and most successful covert action campaigns” it has ever conducted.
Today, RFA is an asset of the US Agency for Global Media, which is funded by the US Congress with hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Its CEO has acknowledged that the organization’s priorities “reflect US national security interests.”
OTF was one of several initiatives that emerged from Washington’s aforementioned push for “internet freedom”.
Individuals closely involved in the realization of this desire have no illusions about the true reason for being they serve. In February 2015, Jillian York, a member of the OTF Advisory Board, stated that she “fundamentally” believes that “internet freedom” is “at its core a regime change agenda.”
OTF, the brainchild of a US intelligence-created “psychological warfare” platform, sheds light on a key purpose of Psiphon — ensuring that citizens of countries caught in the crosshairs of ongoing US-led “regime change” efforts continue to have access to Western state propaganda.
A November 2019 US Agency for Global Media fact sheet on “OTF supported tools” gives Psiphon the highest rating.
“OTF provides assistance to USAGM networks in protecting their online content and ensuring it is resistant to censorship. For example, when USAGM news sites were abruptly shut down in Pakistan, OTF created mirror sites to ensure USAGM content remained available to key audiences… OTF provides emergency support to independent media and journalists facing digital attacks to get back online to go and mitigate future attacks. It says.
A May 2020 OTF report on “highlights and challenges” from the year to date also notes that “veteran circumvention tool provider” Psiphon ensures USAGM-published content – which includes Voice of America Farsi – reaches audiences in countries where they are prohibited.
Similarly, following the British state broadcaster’s ban in Russia in March, a dedicated section of the BBC’s website provided explanatory guidance on how residents can download the app across Android, Apple and Windows.
Should users “find it difficult” to access Psiphon through mainstream app stores, they are asked to send a blank message to a listed email address to receive “a direct and secure download link”.
In Iran, such benefit is no doubt equally invaluable given that hostile media outlets such as the BBC and RFA paint a completely one-sided picture of the unfolding unrest, portraying violent, inciting actions by anti-government elements as peaceful while completely ignoring far larger ones pro-government popular demonstrations.
Another core strength of Psiphon, from the perspective of Western power, is that it routes all user data to and through centralized servers owned by the company itself.
While individuals’ activities on the network may be shielded from the prying eyes of their own government, Psiphon can track what websites they visit and how they communicate in real time.
This allows foreign actors to keep tabs on demonstrators and protest movements and respond accordingly.
Psiphon’s meddling in Iran has long been public knowledge. Back in 2013, the company published a blog hailing the “particularly big impact” it was having in the country “coinciding with the (Iranian) presidential elections.”
While Psiphon acknowledged that Tehran has “always been a big challenge for us,” Psiphon boasted that its software “remained consistently available” during that time, despite repeated efforts to “severly throttle” operations.
That none of these backgrounds have appeared in any of the flattering mainstream poof tracks on Psiphon is shocking, but not surprising.
Eventually, Western news outlets will benefit materially from a US-run protection racket secretly projecting their agitprop onto untold millions of people.
And by actively engaging in a US “regime change” operation, mainstream journalists are less likely to acknowledge the reality of what is happening in Tehran, why, and who will benefit materially from the government’s overthrow. However, that is a far-fetched dream of western powers.
Kit Klarenberg is an investigative journalist and contributor to MintPresss News who examines the role of intelligence agencies in shaping policy and perception. His work has previously appeared in The Cradle, Declassified UK, Electronic Intifada, Grayzone and ShadowProof. Follow him on Twitter @KitKlarenberg.
(The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Press TV.)