Slack has become a mainstay of many industries – when it goes down, you can be sure you’ll know about it. However, for a number of users, Slack access appears to have been revoked. Most of these users have an Iranian background.
Mahdi Saleh, a PhD student at the Technical University of Munich, explained on Twitter how Slack had terminated his account “in order to comply with export control and economic sanctions laws and regulations promulgated by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Treasury.”
@SlackHQ closed my account linked to my @TU_Muenchen email with workspaces related to university and research in Germany! This is both sad and stupid…#slack pic.twitter.com/DlUoKmjM7U
— Mahdi Saleh (@mahdimax2010) December 19, 2018
Slack responded quickly on Twitter, explaining that “our systems may have detected an account on our platform with an IP address originating from a designated embargoed country.”
The company then offered to investigate the issue in detail for Saleh.
Saleh said that following the exchange he got in touch with Slack, but has not, at the time of writing, heard back from the company.
Other Slack users have had their accounts terminated
Saleh says that he does not believe his case is unique: “Apparently I am not the only person outside Iran that this happened to” he said. “A lot researchers [sic] and emigrants got the same email from Slack.”
A quick Twitter search indicates that this is the case, with a number of users sharing the same message from Slack as the one received by Saleh.
“I’m a PhD student in Canada with no teammates from Iran!” said Twitter user @a_h_a. “Is Slack shutting down accounts of those ethnically associated with Iran?! And what’s their source of info on my ethnicity?”
Slack closed my account today!
I’m a PhD student in Canada with no teammates from Iran!
Is Slack shutting down accounts of those ethnically associated with Iran?!
And what’s their source of info on my ethnicity?#slack #UsSanctions pic.twitter.com/mY8Ltczq8v
— Amir (@a_h_a) December 19, 2018
The same user also called into question whether the reasons given by Slack are true or accurate. “I’m in Canada. No ties to Iran. No teammates in Iran!”
“I wonder how my account was associated with my ethnicity and how/where they digged [sic] this info from,” he said.
Amir Odidi, a software developer at ipinfo.io said that there was “no way to appeal this decision. No way to prove that I’m not living in Iran and not working with Iranians on slack. Nope. Just hello we’re banning your account.”
So @SlackHQ decided to send me this email. No way to appeal this decision. No way to prove that I'm not living in Iran and not working with Iranians on slack. Nope. Just hello we're banning your account. pic.twitter.com/giqYQcMJYz
— Amir Omidi (@aaomidi) December 20, 2018
These aren’t the only cases – there are a huge range of other examples of Iranians based in the U.S. and Canada having their accounts terminated.
@SlackHQ are you kidding me? I live in Vancouver and they have removed my account. Unbelievable! pic.twitter.com/DaT6Htj8YB
— Navid Rahimi (@nv_rahimi) December 20, 2018
Filter coffee, not people.#slack #sanctions pic.twitter.com/GaEtNppLcq
— Bamaro | بامارو (@bamaro_ir) December 20, 2018
“Filter coffee, not people”, said one user.
It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on. We approached Slack to get their perspective; the company provided us with a statement very similar to the one sent to those users who have had their accounts terminated. It reads:
“Slack complies with the U.S. regulations related to embargoed countries and regions. As such, we prohibit unauthorized Slack use in Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria and the Crimea region of Ukraine. For more information, please see the US Department of Commerce Sanctioned Destinations, The U.S. Department of Treasury website, and the Bureau of Industry and Security website.
“Our systems may have detected an account and/or a workspace owner on our platform with an IP address originating from a designated embargoed country. If our systems indicate a workspace primary owner has an IP address originating from a designated embargoed country, the entire workspace will be deactivated. If someone thinks any actions we took were done in error, we will review further.”
What does this tell us about how Slack handles user data?
With no clear response from Slack, it isn’t exactly clear how this happened. You could take Slack at their word, but given the information given by users on Twitter, there does appear to be a piece missing in this puzzle.
However, we probably can say that Slack does have an extensive record that allows them to link accounts to specific countries – whether that’s via IP address or something else.
As one Twitter user wrote, the story suggests that Slack has “more data than some customs and border agencies.”
A platform that stores and harvest my access logs over an extended period of time is a no no. A platform that traces and profiles their users to terminate their accounts without notice is a big NOOOOOOOOO.
— JBD (@rakyll) December 20, 2018
This article was updated 12.10.2018 10.25am EST to include Slack’s response.