The Fog of App Wars in Iran
The Fog of App Wars in Iran
24 November 2017 by Shima Shahrabi

Mostafa left home very early on the morning of November 22 in order to offer rides to as many passengers as possible. But each time he tried to pick someone up, he received a warning message from Snapp, a company that allows passengers to hail taxis via an app: “Dear Driver: Because you have the Waze app, you will not be able to access the Snapp service. Remove the app or contact your system support.”

Waze, a GPS navigation program for smartphones, is used by most cabdrivers in Tehran to get information about local traffic in real time.

Mostafa was not the only Snapp driver to receive this warning on November 22. A few days earlier, he had noticed a message from Snapp on the service’s Telegram channel, but at the time he didn’t realize that his mobile phone would be affected — essentially controlled and taken out of operation. He didn’t take from the message what he later learned: It would be impossible for him to pick up passengers as long as he had Waze on his phone.

On Saturday, November 18, taxi centers instructed their drivers to stop using Waze, in line with a order issued by Iran’s judiciary officials. Drivers, they said, should remove the app before November 21 to prevent access to Snapp being deactivated.

Mostafa is 56, and a retired employee of the Forestry Department. He says he receives a retirement salary, but must supplement it with other work. “I need my income from Snapp to live,” he says. “If I cannot work…” He let his sentence trail off before carrying on.“Without using Waze, I cannot work for Snapp because I will be unable to find where people are hailing rides to and from.” He admitted it was not the first time he’d had problems, and added that authorities had filtered the app last year. “I received so many complaints about delays that I had to install a filter-breaker.”

The “Zionist” Spying Tool

In March 2017, authorities filtered Waze for a period of six months. “The Waze app is a spying tool that belongs to the Zionist regime,” explained Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, head of the Iranian cyberspace watchdog the ‎Committee for Determining Criminal Web Content. “The moment it is installed on the phone it has access to all the personal information of the user, including travel and geographic location. This can create security problems for the people, and for the country.”

In a long report published on March 6, the judiciary’s Mizan News Agency described Waze as a product created by the Israeli army. But, on March 10, the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) quoted the then Minister of Communications and Technology Mahmood Vaezi as saying that the ‎Committee for Determining Criminal Web Content had not been responsible for the decision. Instead, it was a judge who had ordered the app to be blocked. “Since this software can be replaced by many other apps, we carried out the order,” he said. [Persian links]

Despite this, authorities unblocked Waze in September without any explanation. “For several months we paid extra for the filter-breaker, but the filter went away by itself,” says Mostafa. “We were hopeful that this time the same thing would happen, but we were absolutely blocked from accessing Snapp.”

Ali, who holds a Master’s degree in commercial management, is also a driver for Snapp. “First they said that Waze is a spying tool and it steals users’ data,” he says, “but what Snapp did today was the same: theft of users’ data. It showed that they have access to apps on people’s mobiles.”

The Snapp scandal became big news on social networks, especially on Twitter, with people complaining that Snapp had violated their privacy. The Revolutionary Guards’ news agency Tasnim published a statement by Snapp [Persian link]. “Violating the privacy of users has never been on our agenda,” said the statement. “We are merely following the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran. At the same time, users of Snapp have also agreed that in using this app they are committed to observing all Islamic, Sharia, moral and social laws of the Islamic Republic. In this special case, the judicial authority demanded that all internet and transportation centers follow its order and that the continuation of their service depended on following the order.”

The current Minister of Communications, Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, tweeted his own explanation about the filtering of Waze, confirming the statements of his predecessor. “Blocking of this app was ordered a year ago by a judge in Mashhad. The reason was that [Waze] has Israeli shareholders. The use of this app increases the value of the company and the judicial order was based on this consideration.” Regarding the matter of people being denied access to Snapp’s services if they have Waze on their phones, Jahromi wrote: “How the cab companies have implemented the judicial order deserves investigation.”

The Homespun Replacement

“Last week, when Snapp refused to work with Waze, it introduced the Daal app as a replacement for drivers to download and install,” says Ali.

Earlier this year, in February, there were reports that a number of students at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran were planning to develop a native navigation app. And, on October 22, under the headline “The Iranian Daal Takes on Competitors,” Revolutionary Guards’ news agency Tasnim reported that the app was ready for use [Persian link].

The online article adopted the tone of a product advertisement, and included a video that introduced the creators of the app — four computer engineering students and one graduate in the field — as well as instructions for how to use it. A web search reveals that although the five do work in computer technology and software development fields, they have shown little enthusiasm for social networks, and only two of them are on LinkedIn.

Star-Struck Executive Director

Milad Cheragh Ali Khani, the executive director of the team, is listed as one of the creators on LinkedIn. But a search also brought up other interesting information about him. In 2015, he won a silver medal at Iran’s Physics Olympiad and in August of that year, during a meeting between Ayatollah Khamenei and prize-winning students, he offered his medal to the Supreme Leader. The reports identified him as a Basiji, a member of the paramilitary voluntary youth organization under the control of the Revolutionary Guards. When asked about the meeting and their conversation, he fawned over the Supreme Leader like a star-struck youngster, saying that Khamenei’s “magnificence” had left him speechless [Persian link].

Ali Yadegar, the team’s technical director, holds a Bachelor’s degree from Sharif University and also has a profile on LinkedIn. On his profile, he introduces himself as a data engineer, a web developer and a technical consultant. Not much information can be found on the web about the other three team members: Mohammad Hosseini, Mohammad Amin Khodaei, and Parsa Mir Taheri, except that they have all won medals from various Olympiads for students.

Speculations about the Waze/Snapp scandal have been rife, fuelled by the photographs of Cheragh Ali Khani with the Supreme Leader, his membership in the paramilitary Basij, the fact that sites associated with the Revolutionary Guards have been promoting the Daal app as a replacement for Snapp, and of course by the second instance of Waze being blocked and drivers being denied access to Snapp on their smartphones. 

Some people have said on social networking sites that Waze has been filtered as a way of supporting a native app, while others question such a conclusion. “Considering that by law the judiciary system is not directly responsible for supporting domestic production,” wrote Communications Minister Jahromi in his tweeted explanations, “it is unlikely that this judicial order is meant to support a native app.” So apparently, even the Communications Minister is in the dark about what is really going on.

An “Islamic” Spying Tool?

Others have gone on social networks to report they do not trust Daal, suspecting it of being used to snoop on them. “Warning! Warning!” wrote a tweeter named Maryam. “The sound that you hear is a red alert: You are being surveilled. Keep calm and install a filter-breaker.”

People have posted that they plan to install Waze on their own smartphones and then use it to give directions to Snapp drivers. And others have come up with tips and tricks for how to bypass Snapp and continue using Waze. Another group on Twitter have repeatedly tweeted to President Rouhani, reminding him of his Citizens’ Rights Charter, which promises greater digital freedoms.

But of course, the fight over Waze and Daal is part of a long battle. It is less about citizens’ rights and more about a bid to take over the lucrative market for navigation apps. For the moment at least, Daal, the favourite app of those close to the Revolutionary Guards, has the upper hand — thanks to an order issued by an unknown judge, funding from unknown sources, and the blind obedience of a government that has no real idea of what is happening.

Please, enter a valid email