A lawmaker in Iran has revealed that the intelligence and communication ministries joined forces to create and manage diversionary social media apps to woo people away from secure international platforms.
Iran banned the popular Telegram messaging app last year after mass protests and later two new apps appeared, labelled Talagram (golden telegram in Persian) and Hotgram, trying to attract users in Iran.
At the time the Minister of Communication Mohammad Azari Jahromi had claimed other state institutions to have been responsible for the new apps, at the same time saying that these are not secure applications.
But a member of parliament from Mashhad, Nassrollah Pezhmanfar told the parliament’s news website in an interview that “Talagram and Hotgram were sponsored by intelligence and communication ministries”, adding that they have spent 4 trillion rials to create the two apps, which are under their control.
The money Pezhmanfar says the ministries spent would be equal to $90 million based on the official government exchange rate and around $25 million based on the current open market rate.
Many people in Iran suspected all along that the two apps were created and monitored by the Islamic Republic, and that is the reason users still cling to the real Telegram using VPNs and other internet blockage circumvention tools. Telegram, which at one point had more than 40 million users in a country with a population of 82 million, is still said to have more than 30 million fans.
This is also not the first time a political figure has mentioned the role of the government in creating insecure apps to control cyberspace. In June 2018, a member of parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission had quoted the minister of intelligence that Golden Telegram was developed by the Islamic Republic.
Google has deleted the two apps from its Android Play Store for reasons of spying and “theft” users’ personal information.
After this, Iran’s communication minister complained on his Twitter that “There are 127 non-official apps in Iran” and the deletion of the two apps from the Play Store will not satisfy domestic and foreign critics.
In his interview, Pezhmanfar says that he has “plenty of documents” to prove the two pretender applications work “under the supervision of the intelligence and communication ministries.
But why would a member of parliament disclose information that could be regarded as state secret? The fact is that Pezhmanfar is a hardliner who like his like-minded peers among the clergy and in all state institutions wants to completely put the internet under the control of intelligence organs, blocking more websites and banning more applications.
By disclosing the role of the government in creating two pretender apps and their relative failure, he is indirectly accusing the two ministries of a half-hearted attempt aimed at delaying a real clampdown on cyberspace.
President Hassan Rouhani and his communication minister Jahromi have repeatedly said limiting internet freedom even more is not a wise move.
But as United States sanctions and pressures have driven the Iranian regime to face acute dangers, such as a mass revolt, the hardliners are beating the drums of more controls, especially on cyberspace.