Azerbaijan September – November 2020 OONI Measurement Results

On September 27, the government in Azerbaijan introduced a series of restrictions on Internet access as a result of military operations in Nagorno Karabakh. Users in Azerbaijan were left with limited Internet access while access to a number of social media platforms, as well as communication apps, were restricted. 

Azerbaijan Internet Watch, and OONI collected data based on OONI measurements from Azerbaijan. Below is the report looking at data between September 2020 to November 2020. 

According to collected OONI data, Azerbaijan experienced the blocking of independent media websites as well as signs of potential circumvention tool site blocking. However, further OONI Prote testing is required to confirm these censorship events. Azerbaijan Internet Watch continues to monitor the situation. 

Starting on September 27, a number of social media services indicated signs of blocking in Azerbaijan. Among these were:

Whatsapp: between 27th September 2020 to 11th November 2020 , all OONI Probe WhatsApp tests showed signs of WhatsApp blocking. This is illustrated through OONI Probe WhatsApp measurements collected from multiple local networks in Azerbaijan. Previously according to the same measurements, no such instances were documented. The measurements indicated that attempted connections to WhatsApp’s registration service and web interface (web.whatsapp.com) failed. In some cases HTTP request to web.whatsapp.com succeeded while HTTPS request failed as illustrated below. 

This could be an indication of SNI based filtering of WhatsApp. We also observe that the tls_handshakes field presented failures, further suggesting that access to WhatsApp was blocked in Azerbaijan by means of SNI based filtering.

This pattern was seen across multiple ISPs in Azerbaijan between 27th September 2020 to 11th November 2020.

Telegram: Similarly to the testing of WhatsApp, OONI measurements presented signs of Telegram blocking in Azerbaijan between 27th September 2020 to 11th November 2020. But unlike WhatsApp, a few Telegram tests during this period were successful. This is illustrated through OONI Probe Telegram measurements collected from multiple local networks in Azerbaijan between 1st September 2020 to 27th November 2020. The following table illustrates OONI measurements collected from the testing of Telegram and WhatsApp on 5 different networks in Azerbaijan between September 2020 to November 2020.

We not only observed similarities between the date range of potential blocking (of WhatsApp and Telegram), but we also saw potentially similar censorship techniques, as the HTTP requests to Telegram Web (web.telegram.org) timed out as well. Similarly to WhatsApp, we observed a timeout in the TLS handshake, suggesting TLS level interference of Telegram as well. As a result, it is possible that internet users in Azerbaijan couldn’t use the Telegram and WhatsApp mobile apps (on the tested networks) during this time period (between 27th September 2020 to 11th November 2020), even though connections to the tested app endpoints succeeded.

Social media sites: apart from WhatsApp and Telegram, several social media websites presented signs of blocking as well, starting from early October 2020. These include:

It is however, important to note these sites’ limited testing coverage limits Azerbaijan Internet Watch and OONI’s confidence with respect to their blocking, and they have not been tested more recently especially after the conflict ended.

AIW and OONI continue monitoring the situation with blocking.

spotted: sandvine back at it, this time, in Azerbaijan

In August, when people in Belarus took the streets across the country in protest of election results where incumbent President Lukashenka secured yet another victory in a contested presidential election, authorities deliberately cut the internet. Quickly, experts concluded DPI technology may be in use. By the end of August, it was reported that this DPI technology was produced by the Canadian company Sandvine and supplied to Belarus as part of a $2.5million contract with the Russian technology supplies Jet Infosystems.

DPI (Deep Packet Inspection) is known as digital eavesdropping that allows information extraction. More broadly as explained here, DPI “is a method of monitoring and filtering internet traffic through inspecting the contents of each packet that is transmitted through an inspection point, allowing for filtering out malware and unwanted traffic, but also real-time monitoring of communications, as well as the implementation of targeted blockings and shutdowns.” 

Canadian company Sandvine is owned by American private equity firm Francisco Partners.

 

Sandvine technology has been detected in many countries across the world, including in Ethiopia, Iran, as well as Turkey, and Syria as previously reported. One other country where Sandvine technology was reportedly deployed is Azerbaijan

In Azerbaijan, the DPI deployments have been used since March 2017. This was reported in January 2019, when VirtualRoad, the secure hosting project of the Qurium – Media Foundation published a report documenting fresh attacks against Azerbaijan’s oldest opposition newspaper Azadliq’s website (azadliq.info). The report concluded: “After ten months trying to keep azadliq.info online inside Azerbaijan using our Bifrost service and bypassing multi-million dollar DPI deployments, this is one more sign of to what extent a government is committed to information control”.  

Another report released in April 2018 showed evidence of the government of Azerbaijan using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) since March 2017. The report also found out that this specialized security equipment was purchased at a price tag of 3 million USD from an Israeli security company Allot Communications.

Now, according to this story reported by Bloomberg, Sandvine worked with Delta Telecom – Azerbaijan’s main internet provider and owned by the government to install a system to block live stream videos from YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. “The social media blackout came last week after deadly clashes with Armenia. As a result, people in Azerbaijan couldn’t reach websites including Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, Twitter, Zoom, and Skype, according to internet monitoring organization Netblocks,” wrote Bloomberg. 

Azerbaijan Internet Watch has been monitoring the situation on the ground since September 27, the day when clashes began. Together with OONI, Azerbaijan Internet Watch reported that access to several social media applications and websites was blocked. 

Access to the Internet remains throttled in Azerbaijan as of writing this post. Many of the social media applications remain accessible only through a VPN provider. As a result, authorities have resorted to other means in order to prevent users from using VPN services. From banks to ISPs encouraging users not to use VPN services, this account on Facebook made a list of VPNs alleging they were of Armenian origin in order to discourage users.