Hamster Kombat online game that lures users with a promise of future cryptocurrency earnings.

Iranians Chase Wealth Dreams, Defy Cryptocurrency Game Warning

Saturday, 06/08/2024

A mysterious online game promising financial rewards has swept through Iran, attracting players who defy government warnings in their pursuit of wealth.

But what is the game and the craze all about? Why is it captivating the masses, and what is fueling the opposition against it?

What is Hamster Kombat?

Hamster Kombat, a swiftly expanding "play-to-earn" mobile game accessible through Telegram, debuted officially on March 25th. Within a mere 72 days, it had amassed over 116 million users.

This game lets players oversee a virtual cryptocurrency exchange, earning in-game coins that can later be converted into tokens.

The fundamental gameplay revolves around players selecting a cryptocurrency exchange they wish to manage and tapping on the central Hamster icon on the screen to accumulate profits in the form of in-game coins.

As players accrue more coins in the exchange's balance, its level increases, facilitating faster coin earnings.

What is the allure?

The users' hope is that the game will be listed on an exchange. Cryptocurrency listing, also known as crypto coin listing, entails introducing a newly launched cryptocurrency to an exchange platform, thereby making it publicly accessible for trading.

Hamster Kombat gameplay

The game's resemblance Notcoin, a popular game in which some players achieved monetary gains, has also contributed to its appeal.

Moreover, it is essential not to overlook the simplicity of the game and the popularity of Telegram in Iran as the platform itself.

So, what could go wrong?

The game may lead to identity and data breaches, as experts have told Iran International.

“Since this game is NFT [non-fungible tokens], the ecosystem and platforms surrounding their use can directly lead to user tracking and data collection in different ways,” Sahar Tahvili, an AI researcher and the co-author of “Artificial Intelligence Methods for Optimization of the Software Testing Process” told Iran International.

"NFT" stands for a digital token of ownership usually purchased or sold using a cryptocurrency.

“This type of data is usually used for online marketing; however, it can also be used for identity fraud, phishing, social engineering, and other malicious purposes.

Aside from this, they also have this system where if you invite a friend, they will reward you, from which they can create a network of people, and discern their relationships and behavior patterns,” the expert told Iran International.

“Since people usually share their true identities and details when money is involved, their genuine digital identity could be accessible,” she added.

Telegram, founded by Pavel and Nikolai Durov, initially gained popularity for its stance against the Kremlin. But there are doubts concerning where the servers are based and possible threats as outlined by Forbes.

"Since its early days, Telegram has been infamous for shielding illicit content from authorities, playing the anti-establishment role . This type of separation can directly impact data security, performance, and compliance with different countries' regulations, depending on where the hosting servers are located and how they are managed. In this case, the actual game files and user data will be stored on RU-CENTER’s infrastructure in Russia," Tahvili said.

"On the other hand, the main servers of Telegram are also outside the European Union, which has raised concerns about compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Considering the large number of end users on both Telegram messenger and the Hamster game, Telegram needs powerful servers that can handle and process this large amount of data. Therefore such huge servers need to be located in sufficiently cold climates (such as Siberia) where the data centers can use the outside air for cooling," the expert told Iran International.

Why is the Islamic Republic warning against the game?

"Storing such a large amount of personal data in a database outside of Iran might raise some concerns for the Iranian government. In fact, other countries could potentially access the personal data of Iranian citizens, which could be utilized for social engineering and phishing purposes," Tahvili told Iran International.

The game generally raises significant issues, such as data security and the harvesting of user data. However, the primary concern for Iranian authorities appears to be the high level of public engagement in Tahvili's opinion.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has restricted access to various messaging apps, replacing Telegram with local alternatives, the expert explained. However, domestic messengers have struggled to rival international messaging apps, largely due to their lack of appealing features and fears among citizens about potential surveillance.

"A filtered version of Telegram has now garnered significant attention in Iran, and the provided web-based game Hamster has attracted a large number of end users. Such online engagement with external applications, gathering a lot of attention, and having several million end users raises concerns for the authorities in Iran regarding applications that might be used to circumvent censorship and share news," the researcher said.

Why are citizens defying authorities' stance?

Individuals' motivations for exposing their data and identity may stem from a lack of trust in the ruling establishment, particularly in economic distress when the perceived risk seems minimal. Millions of Iranians have increasingly become impoverished since 2018 when the United States imposed sanctions. They see the slightest chance of earning money as a blessing.

Despite governmental warnings, the economic incentives offered by the game often outweigh cautionary advice.

This vulnerability is further exacerbated among those accustomed to living under a dictatorship, who may lack awareness of their privacy rights, rendering them susceptible targets for such games.

There is a pervasive lack of trust to the extent that if authorities issue warnings against a particular activity, the immediate assumption is that they seek exclusive control over it.

Conversely, if authorities support the activity, there remains suspicion that they have ulterior motives involving illicit activities.

What is the International stance?

Ukraine has emerged as a prominent state responding to Hamster Kombat.

The Ukrainian government website, specifically the Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security (Spravdi), has warned citizens against playing the game. 

The concern stems from its Russian domain registration under the RU-CENTER Group.

“Given the legal obligations of Russian companies to store user data on servers and disclose it to law enforcement agencies upon request, this situation poses a potential threat to Ukrainians,” according to Spravdi's statement, published in May. “Personal data could be vulnerable to exploitation for undisclosed purposes.”

What is the Iranian official and media stance?

Ironically, the clerical government in Iran seems to agree with Ukraine. As the game's popularity grew in Iran, the media also took note, and soon, authorities, from police to hardliner clerics, began to issue warnings.

On Friday, the spokesman for Iran's National Center for Cyberspace issued a warning about Hamster Kombat, stating that money-earning games have “become an ideal platform for hackers and thieves.”

“Players of these games are advised to take extra care in protecting their information and accounts,” Hossein Deliriyan wrote on X.

Iran's Cyberpolice stated on Saturday that it is evaluating threats and damages and will announce the results soon.

Hamshahri Online, the website of the Tehran Municipal Newspaper, published opinions from senior clerics, including Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, a hardliner, holding one of the highest ranks in Iran's Shiite clerical hierarchy, and Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, Chief of Staff to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, regarding the purchase and sale of digital currencies.

Almost all of these clerics, except for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself, explicitly forbid cryptocurrency trading and related activities, citing that "cryptocurrencies do not have a clear and precise source, and they can endanger the country's economy as well as circumvent sovereignty and launder money, they are therefore forbidden or unlawful.”

Khamenei has only stated that cryptocurrency trading should be in "compliance with the official laws of the country in this matter.”

Is there an official set of rules?

The legal status of cryptocurrency in Iran remains a grey area. While there were initial discussions in parliament about a potential ban, it was later clarified that this would only apply to state institutions, leaving the status of cryptocurrency for the general public uncertain.

The judiciary's website, Mizan, states that “in general, it is not legal to trade cryptocurrencies in Iran, but there is no law explicitly stating that trading cryptocurrencies in Iran is illegal or considered a crime.”

However, cryptocurrency mining, which involves verifying transactions and generating new tokens, requires “obtaining permission from the government.”

Nevertheless, in 2022, the state's intelligence ministry reported blocking over 9,000 accounts of 454 individuals used for illegal or undeclared currency exchanges. Based on the exchange rate during that period, the relevant trades amounted to 600 trillion rials, or approximately $2 billion.

Does the Islamic Republic employ a double standard in its approach to cryptocurrency?

Experts assert that the Iranian government has a self-inflicted “muddled relationship with crypto-currencies,” which facilitates evading sanctions by the government while also enabling illicit activities.

According to reports in Iranian media, significant cryptocurrency mining operations are conducted by influential or well-connected networks, along with certain Chinese companies leveraging inexpensive and subsidized electricity in mining facilities established within Iran. Such activities could only have been authorized by Iran's intelligence services and the Revolutionary Guard.

In April, the US Treasury Department urged Congress to pass legislation empowering the department to intervene in cryptocurrency-based terrorist financing and sanctions evasion methods. During a Senate hearing session, it was disclosed that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) had utilized cryptocurrency for funding certain entities.

In 2022, it was revealed that cryptocurrency exchange giant Binance processed Iranian transactions totaling $8 billion since 2018, despite US sanctions aimed at isolating Iran from the global financial system.

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