Women are the primary targets of Iran’s surveillance state

Frankie Vetch


​​An Iranian official has indicated that surveillance cameras with facial recognition technology will be used to identify and fine women who fail to adhere to the country’s strict rules on wearing hijabs. After the 1979 revolution the hijab was made compulsory for all females over the age of nine.

On August 15, a law was signed which toughened rules on women appearing in public without hijabs or posting pictures on social media with their heads uncovered. Government employees with profile pictures that don’t conform with Iran’s hardline interpretations of Islamic law will be fired. A month prior to the signing of the law, the national “Hijab and Chastity Day” caused widespread protests in which women posted videos on social media with their heads uncovered in public places such as on buses and trains. 

The authorities initiated a crackdown in response, with so-called morality police arresting, detaining, and even beating women before forcing them to “confess” to their supposed crimes on TV. In June we covered how Iran has been using trolls to target female activists online. The country has also frequently used mobile shutdowns.

About seven years ago, Iran began using biometric national identity cards. This required all new applicants for a national identity card as well as those renewing their existing cards, to scan their irises, fingerprints and faces. Without the card people are unable to access a host of services such as pensions and driving licenses. 

Amir Rashidi, Director of Digital Rights and Security at Miaan Group, is concerned that Iran’s poor data privacy regulation, and high levels of cyber crime, means people’s data will be very vulnerable to non-state actors. “The risk is from two sides. One from the security services who want to go after women for not wearing the proper hijab. And the second, from normal hackers who want to access that information,” says Rashidi.

An Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, Tara Sepehri Far, says it is unclear at this stage whether the country actually has the capacity to use facial recognition technology. “It’s just fascinating to me how it is possible to bureaucratize repression in a way that makes it less visible,” she told me, “even though it is still the same repressive, discriminatory plan.”

How would this look? Instead of morality police monitoring women manually, cameras would identify them and then they would receive a fine. Not wearing a hijab becomes more like getting caught speeding. This bureaucratized system of surveillance and repression is a model exported from China, where a vast network of facial recognition cameras are being deployed to monitor citizens. China has been providing “smart city” technology to a number of authoritarian states, including Myanmar, as we reported a month ago.

A 2020 draft of an agreement between China and Iran indicated the two countries were gearing up for a 25-year partnership, in which they would collaborate on the development of several key technologies. This included smart technologies and artificial intelligence, which is used for facial recognition technology.

The Chinese state has been developing a lot of its facial recognition technology in Xinjiang, where it is conducting a brutal crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslim populations. Which raises the question: Could Iran be buying technology that was initially designed by China to suppress Islamic practices, in order to enforce these same Islamic practices?


A Saudi government application that lets citizens “play the role of a police officer” may have helped put a women’s rights activist behind bars. The government app, Kollona Amn, is an authoritarian dream. It allows Saudis to flag and report “suspicious” behavior, including other peoples’ social media activity, directly to authorities. Human rights activists say the app helps the government identify dissidents and activists, and fear it may have facilitated the arrest of activist Salma al-Shehab, who was recently sentenced to 34 years in prison over tweets she posted supporting women’s rights. “They really want civil society to be invisible, they don’t want people to exist, not even online,” said Lina al-Hathloul, a human rights activist. 

Al-Shehab’s arrest is part of a troubling global trend. We’ve previously reported on how authorities from El Salvador to India are weaponizing Twitter to crack down on independent speech. Now, in Turkey, a Syrian journalist’s government-related tweets led to his detention and possible deportation. On September 8, Samer Daboul, a Syrian freelance photojournalist working in Turkey, was detained in Gaziantep and taken to prison in Oğuzeli after supposedly tweeting about “racist speech” by the Turkish government, according to a Syrian journalist. Though it remains unclear what Daboul tweeted that annoyed the government, his arrest comes on the heels of Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s summer plan to send one million Syrian refugees back to Syria. Hours before his release, Daboul was allegedly forced to tweet a statement denying that he was in any kind of danger. He also distanced himself from any previous tweets, claiming they did not reflect his personal beliefs. Following that tweet and a small public push for his release, the Turkish government freed Daboul on September 10. Currently, he remains in Gaziantep. We’ll continue to follow this story, so stay tuned for more.

Twitter censored a controversial tweet from a Carnegie Mellon University professor on the grounds that it was “abusive” towards Queen Elizabeth. The Nigerian-born professor, Uju Anya, weighed in on the Queen’s death a few hours before her passing. “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying,” she wrote. “May her pain be excruciating.”

The post went viral and unleashed a flood of criticism and vitriol before Twitter took it down. Upon removing it, the company claimed the post violated its rules on “abusive behavior,” which it defines as “an attempt to harass, intimidate, or silence someone else’s voice.” Critics pointed out that Twitter’s explanation stretched the limits of credulity. As Stanford’s Evelyn Douek noted, Twitter’s decision underscores platforms’ routinely deferential approach to powerful figures who come under fire online: “Often people in power get allowances because it’s in the public interest but people don’t for criticizing them, even though that’s often clearly in the public interest too.” 

Albania has severed diplomatic relations with Iran after accusing the country of carrying out a major cyberattack. It’s the first time a country has cut diplomatic ties over an alleged digital attack, and is a geopolitical harbinger of what may be to come as nations build up their cyber arsenals. Albanian officials claim the attack, which sought to cripple the government’s digital infrastructure, was carried out by the Iranian government as an “act of state aggression.” The incident also prompted a response from the U.S. government, which vowed to “hold Iran accountable for actions that threaten the security of a US ally and set a troubling precedent for cyberspace.” We’ve covered the rise of ransomware attacks as a geopolitical weapon—for more, check out pieces here and here.

This week’s newsletter is curated by Coda’s staff reporter Erica Hellerstein. Rebekah Robinson and Rayan El Amine contributed to this edition.