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Millions of iPhone Users Unable to Use Iranian Apps Due to Apple Certificate Revocation

Source: Center for Human Rights in Iran

A new move by the Apple Corporation aimed at protecting user data has resulted in Iranian apps becoming unusable on the iOS mobile operating system as of February 27, 2019, for some 9 million users.

Apple said it revoked enterprise certificates to prevent gambling and pornography companies as well as social media networks such as Facebook from collecting private user data via apps.

Most iPhone users around the world won't notice a difference. But Iranian apps are no longer useable on iPhones used by an estimated more than 9 million people because the apps require the certificate to operate on iOS.

"We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization... Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case to protect our users and their data," Apple said in a statement posted on its website January 31, 2019.

It's unknown exactly how many people in Iran use iPhones, but according to Statistical Center of Iran, between March 2017 and March 2018, the number of active mobile phones in Iran grew 7.5 percent to 88 million.

In March 2018, the Radio Farda news site quoted a tweet by Iranian Telecommunications Minister Azari Jahromi stating that "Eleven percent of Iran's mobile market belongs to Apple," which would mean 9.6 million people have iPhones in Iran.

Users of the iPhone in Iran rely on Iranian apps for a variety of daily activities including ridesharing and online transactions.

Apple's revocation of the crucial certificates will not only deny Iranians access to apps providing information, services and games, it will also harm the country's tech sector, which was already struggling to operate under state-enforced anti-internet-freedom policies and sanctions.

Iranian companies whose apps are based on iOS, such as the popular Uber-like Snapp app, will also lose all their iPhone customers, which would lead to people losing their jobs as well.

Why Do Iranian Apps Require Enterprise Certificates to Run on iOS?

In August 2017, Apple removed many Iranian apps from its online store while stating that it was complying with US-imposed sanctions.

To continue operating on iPhones, many developers of Iranian apps sought and received enterprise certificates from Apple that enabled them to operate on the iPhone without going through the no longer accessible Apple app store.

But after increasing reports about unethical data capture practices by some companies, Apple revoked the enterprise certificates worldwide.

Squeezed From the Inside and Out, Iranian Tech Workers Hope to Emigrate

It is not known how many companies and individuals will be affected by the move. But an iOS tech developer working for an Iranian bank, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) on February 28 that "More than 40 percent of the bank's customers rely on its iOS-based app."

"It's clear that these companies will turn to PWA (Progressive Web Apps), and iOS developers will either be fired or allowed to switch to another field. Only a few companies can help their employees transfer to a different field of work and the rest have to leave the country or try to find remote work."

The source noted that many Iranians struggle to find work in Iran's tech sector, squeezed from the inside by stifling state policies and regulations, and from the outside by financial sanctions that prevent them from being paid through the international banking system.

For these reasons, many Iranians are seeking ways to emigrate.

"Thanks to sanctions, it's really hard to find remote jobs and even if they exist, the pay is far less than the international rate," he said. "For this reason, in recent years a lot of the skilled workforce has no choice but emigrate."

Pointing out the difficulties in transferring funds to and from Iran, an Iranian iOS developer in the city of Shiraz who spoke on the condition of anonmity told CHRI: "If we didn't have this situation, domestic companies could expand, international firms would enter the Iranian market and with the inevitable progress, we would be able to find employment inside the country."

The developer continued: "But in this situation, most people are looking to go to other countries. I myself am looking to emigrate to Europe and if that doesn't work out, I might go to Turkey where I can work remotely and receive payments."

The US Treasury's General License D-1, issued by the Obama administration, exempts personal communication devices from being impacted by US sanctions on Iran. But now, with the revocation of Apple's enterprise certificate, Iranian developers are finding themselves back where they started, unable to operate on iPhones because they can't use Apple's app store.

"We received a license from the US Treasury to offer the Gap messaging app and now, without any logical reason, Apple has become more Catholic than the Pope by blocking access to Gap users. We are going to publish an alternative version through another channel," tweeted Mehdi Anjidani, founder and CEO of the Iranian Gap messaging app.

Iranians responded to Apple's move by venting their frustrations on social media.

"We're struggling to stay alive with filters from inside and sanctions from outside," tweeted journalist Shabnam Kohanchi on February 28.

The internet and social media apps are heavily restricted and censored in Iran. After banning the country's most widely used messaging app, Telegram, the Iranian government has recently set its sights on Instagram.

Tech journalist Shahram Sharif commented: "You can blame it on revoking enterprise certificates but in the end we are in this situation because of the sanctions. Let's remind ourselves that the sanctions were not supposed to be against the people. If there were no sanctions, companies like Snapp, AppDigikala and others would not have taken the unconventional step of developing [iOS] apps."

Game developer Shahriar Azharianfar tweeted: "Not only has our contract been canceled, but our plans, medium-term goals, job creation, financial network, and earnings have also been affected. We were forced into this situation, otherwise no one likes to develop Apple apps in this way [using enterprise certificates]."

Jamal Ahmadi, who works for the Iranian Android app store, Cafe Bazaarwrote, "They said the sanctions won't affect the people but apparently they do. A lot."

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