Iran Is Using Facial Recognition to Enforce Modesty Laws

Women in Iran say they are being fined and prosecuted for violating hijab laws without ever being face-to-face with law enforcement.

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People gather in protest against the death of Mahsa Amini along the streets on September 19, 2022 in Tehran, Iran.
People gather in protest against the death of Mahsa Amini along the streets on September 19, 2022 in Tehran, Iran.
Photo: Getty Images (Getty Images)

When the Iranian government announced last month it would move to disband its so-called “morality police” following weeks of historic anti-authoritrain protests, dissidents in the country and abroad saw the concession as a potential turning point for women’s rights. Among its compromises, government officials said they would consider loosening the country’s strict obligatory hijab laws, which have been in place since 1979. However, while accounts of police prying people from city streets for refusing to wear head coverings appear to have dwindled, some advocates fear those same dress-code-defying defectors are instead being targeted by facial recognition systems and penalized afterwards.

“Many people haven’t been arrested in the streets,” Sarzamineh told Wired. “They were arrested at their homes one or two days later.”

University of Oxford researcher Mahsa Alimardani discussed the possibility of facial recognition being used to enforce Iran’s hijab laws in a recent interview with Wired. Alimardani recounted reports of women in Iran who claim to have received mail citations for violating the law without warning or any face-to-face interaction with law enforcement. Those descriptions matched up with first hand accounts from Iranian expat Sarzamineh Shadi, who told the magazine she was aware of multiple women who received citations for flouting hijab rules during protests days after the actual protest occurred.

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Iran’s theocratic government has been engaged in a brutal crackdown against protesters following the September death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman named Mahsa Amini who was detained by the country’s morality police for not wearing a hijab while visiting Tehran and died in police custody. The ensuing nationwide protests have reportedly resulted in more than 19,000 arrests and left at least 300 people dead. And while those dissidents have already won major concessions, broadened efforts by protestors calling for real regime change are squaring off with an advanced state surveillance system years in the making.

Though it’s difficult to confirm the exact methods used to identify individuals on a case-by-case basis, Iranian officials have said they are using facial recognition to enforce its hijab laws. Last September, The Guardian cited an interview with Mohammad Saleh Hashemi Golpayegani, the Secretary of Iran’s Headquarters for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice, where the official said the government intended to use surveillance technology in public spaces.

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Those detection efforts are made possible in the first place thanks to a seven-year-old government ID system in the country that requires face scans and other biometric identifier. Speaking with Wired, Alimardani said the same database system used to create the country’s national ID cards could simultaneously be used by officials to identify presumed hijab law violators or others considered to have run afoul with the regime.

The Iranian government’s surveillance vision extends far beyond facial recognition too. Since at least 2016, officials have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to create its own internal intranet separated from the world-wide-web and rely solely on Iranian server farms. That effort follows in the footsteps of similar isolated internet systems in China and, more recently, Russia. In the meantime, Iranian officials have repeatedly intervened to shut down access to global internet communications platforms, including during the most recent protests.