VPN address anonymity

Connecting to the Internet from Iran, via Proxies: Q&A

My Iranian correspondent (whom I only know as G_IR) posted this today:

"I live in Iran and have access to the Internet through strange and difficult ways to be here with you. If you have any questions, I would be happy to answer."

I asked him this:

"I assume you're using a VPN that does multiple hops, if not a more advanced setup. Am I correct?"

He responded as follows:

"All free VPNs have been blocked by the government and even using Tor is difficult. Currently, I am using a combination of several different proxies to avoid being detected on the network because they block the connection. In the end, I can only have better access to textual content than visual content due to slow and disrupted speed. Besides the disruption in Internet bandwidth, slow speed and the government's blocking of all social networks, the worst problem we currently face is the very high cost of Internet subscriptions. Many people in different cities have been without access to the Internet for a long time, and many other cities cannot afford to buy or renew their subscription due to its high cost. Internet subscriptions in Iran are limited to a certain number of days and a specific data volume. We do not have unlimited Internet."

Having used proxies before, and a multi-hop VPN myself, with my unreliable connection (including outages that can last up to a day), I can only imagine how horribly slow and frustrating that must be.

So let me get this right: He's connecting to a proxy and then using that to connect to another one, several times? Yikes, what a pain that must be, just to communicate the situation in his country to the rest of the world (which largely doesn't care or is dismissive, from what I've seen).

He says that yes, he is prepared to make that effort and take his chances despite the personal inconveniences and risks; telling others about the plight of his people is that important to him.

"Well, what about using an unlimited Starlink connection to improve the connection situation somewhat?"

"In Iran, we are not allowed to buy or sell Astrill VPN devices. Only a few have been smuggled into the country and are being used. Subscribers on Twitter say that they have reasonable and unlimited speed. Out of a population of 80 million in Iran, at most 100 people have access to Astrill VPN. Besides, it was just a marketing trick; all a lot of talk that is not happening in reality."

I asked him if there is anything that we can do to help, other than send him Nano (XNO) to help pay for his Internet connection and supplement his living expenses. (Bear in mind that by "we", I refer to the world at large, but particularly the cryptosphere. As someone who is struggling to make ends meet on my own, I'm hardly in any position to finance my own life, let alone someone else's as well.) His response was this:

"Unfortunately, due to the severe restrictions of the government here, there is no other work that can be done by us or others.

A nationwide strike in Iran was supposed to have a financial assistance fund, but after the fund was set up outside of Iran, no secure way was found to transfer the money. One of the main reasons is that the government quickly blocks accounts and arrests individuals.

What we really need is for crypto (preferably privacy coins like Monero or ZCash) to be sent to someone in Iran, without the government being able to trace it coming in or how it is spent. However, the only currency that is currently being used for instant transfer and conversion without commission is Nano (XNO), because of zero fees. We do not use an exchange to convert it, but rather transfer it between other Iranian users so that it can be used. The government can only track the transactions if we use official exchanges here. That's why it's not possible to receive all types of cryptocurrencies; transfer fees are too high. Furthermore, donors are rare to come by. We are practically under siege and taken hostage.

In the past six months, I have received a maximum of $16 in donations, and I was extremely grateful to receive it because it helped solve a small part of my problems, but you must understand that it was only a small part. Don't misunderstand me or get me wrong here, but it's definitely not enough. We need a lot more in order to keep going."

That is one of the main reasons why those privacy projects were started, after all, but the transaction fees can definitely be a blocker to their adoption. I put this to him:

"Sure, the zero fees thing is definitely an advantage, but Nano is not a privacy coin. If you're the main recipient, then you run the risk of being found out and taken out by the government, the same with anyone found to have a nano wallet. There goes your network, right? Also, are you using it to buy goods and services from each other, if you're not exchanging it for fiat?"

He didn't answer that, so I asked him this instead:

"What's the average cost of living for a month for someone there, do you know, and how much do you need to come in to help everyone, do you think?"

His response:

"The cost of living, taking into account the inflation that has occurred in the past three years, as well as the current strikes and protests, is 18 million Tomans for a family of four, which is equivalent to about 300 US dollars a month. This amount is spent on an ordinary life!! The current exchange rate is 1 US dollar equals 600,000 Iranian Rials.

The minimum-wage earnings of a worker here are equivalent to about $67 US dollars for one month of work, 6 days a week, and 10 hours per day."

That cost of living's definitely not a lot, to my mind, since it's a little less than what I earn in a good month, for my freelance work. It's probably not much at all to some Americans, Brits or Europeans. I wonder if I should set up some sort of crowdfunding thing, but I've not had luck with multiple attempts at that in the past.

I also asked him if the Iranian people with access to the Internet couldn't use a DEX like KuCoin (which doesn't require KYC).

"Unfortunately, with foreign Websites, it is easily detectable that we are using a proxy or VPN, and they block our accounts. We have rarely seen any program or website that supports Iran and allows us to create user accounts. We practically do not have access to any of your normal services. The big problem is that everything becomes increasingly more complex and expensive every few days. Currently, we are expecting inflation to triple or quadruple because the government does not have money and relies on taxes, fines for cars, and high fuel prices for income. Many workers, employees, and teachers have committed suicide during this period due to poverty and loss of hope. We need for the situation to change quickly.

We do not have access to paid VPNs here because we either do not want to pay for them or they do not accept digital currency payments."

That's definitely a highly problematic situation in many ways. Unfortunately, it's one I don't know how to solve, other than finding a DEX that will allow the use of a VPN or make an exception for Iranians (if one exists). Surely, it would occur to the people that run such exchange Websites that those of us who wish to keep our identities private (including using a DEX as part of that) will use such technologies. Apparently, that's not the case. So much for non-discrimination and privacy online ...

I did mention Nord and Mulvad as possible VPN options that might solve the privacy/payment issue, but they might be too expensive ($6 a month flat rate if you're not on the two-year plan for Nord and not able to pay up front):

"Nord accepts BTC and only asks you provide an email address. As far as I know, Protonmail (and maybe some others) accept payment in BTC as well, if you want to use that. Alternately, there's Mullvad, which allows you to pay in a number of cryptocurrencies (BTC, BCH and Monero). It doesn't ask for anything else from you, other than that you generate an account number and keep it. I've used both and prefer Mullvad. Whether or not you'll be able to get and use it under severe restrictions, I don't know."

Hopefully, somebody has solutions and will see this, because it's clear to me that the situation in Iran is indeed dire and the people will continue to suffer greatly and die if they don't get help. I'll leave you with this from him, though:

"I have been trying to make money by retweeting for the past two months, but it seems like it's just a game. Unfortunately, the cost for me is too expensive. Unfortunately, most of the world's people (particularly online) don't seem to care about anyone but themselves and their make-believe perfect lives. Twitter seems to be a prime example of that.

I tried to mine Nano from the various nano faucets for about a month, but I only made 30 cents in income. Faucets don't pay enough if you're not one of the top 100 earners.

Even if you cannot donate, one of the best ways you can help is to share my message (and that of my people). You can follow 1500Tasvir_en for Iranian Events on Instagram or Twitter. However, I caution you that some of the images may be disturbing."

Thumbnail image: VPN address anonymity, by Mohamed Hassan on Pixabay

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