Digital privacy has had a very bad summer. As China and Russia move to block virtual private network services, well over a billion people face losing their best chance at circumventing censorship laws. First, China asked telecom companies to start blocking user access to VPNs that didn't pass government muster by next February. More recently, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a law to ban VPNs and other anonymous browsing tools that undermine government censorship.
As citizens of these countries and people around the world scramble to understand the repercussions, US-based companies that operate in the countries have been swept up in the controversy. Apple complied with a Chinese government order to remove VPNs from its Chinese iOS AppStore, and the company that runs Amazon's cloud services in China this week said it would no longer support VPN use. Even hotels around China that offered VPN services to foreign visitors are largely curtailing the practice.
China and Russia's recent actions aren't new movements toward censorship, but they are escalations. And they leave citizens with few viable options for accessing the open internet.
While the suppressive efforts share the same end goal, they do take different forms. China has laid the foundation for its "Great Firewall" for more than two decades, attempting to control citizens' internet access on a very large scale. Creating and upgrading such a system over time takes massive resources. While Putin has praised the approach, Russia doesn't have a comparable apparatus. Instead, since about 2012, the Kremlin has gradually built up a web of legislation that shapes and controls the Russian internet through legal force more than technical control.
"These crackdowns and ratcheting up of internet censorship in China tend to ebb and flow, and so it is possible that eventually we may see VPNs sort of silently reappear," says Eva Galperin, the director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "In Russia what theyre doing is theyre passing more and more draconian laws that are extremely difficult to implement. The reason for this is it makes sure that at any given time everyone is breaking the lawanyone that the government wants to target and wants to lean on for information is in violation of the law."
Apple Caved to China, Just Like Almost Every Other Tech Giant
Why Apple Is Losing Its Shine in China
Netflix May Never Break Into China
Both approaches have made Russia and China insular markets, challenging for international companies to operate in. Apple, which has been accused of hypocrisy for pushing back against government surveillance in the US while complying with VPN takedown requirements in China, worked for years to enter the Chinese market. "We would obviously rather not remove the apps, but like we do in other countries we follow the law wherever we do business," company CEO Tim Cook said in an earnings call on Tuesday. "We strongly believe participating in markets and bringing benefits to customers is in the best interest of the folks there and in other countries as well."
The VPN crackdowns in China and Russia came as no surprise to those who follow digital rights closely. "We expected it at some point, it wasn't like we didnt know where it came from," says Robert Knapp, the CEO of the Romanian VPN provider CyberGhost, which had its app removed from the iOS AppStore in China. "We had seen the Chinese government putting more and more pressure on VPN providers in a technical senseblocking our IPs, blocking the server infrastructure we were using, detecting traffic from certain sources."
After years of investing in technical control, China now seems focused on experimenting with regulatory enforcement as well. In the Xinjiang region of western China, reports indicate that the government is requiring citizens to install spyware on their smartphonesostensibly for anti-terrorism initiativesand is doing random stops to check whether local residents have complied. They have also arrested citizens over conversations in private chatrooms, indicating that the local government may be actively taking advantage of the spyware. "We are extremely alarmed. This is about as far as a nation-state has gone to submit its people to monitoring," Jeremy Malcolm, a senior global policy analyst at EFF, said of the situation in Xinjiang.
For its part, the Russian government has moved swiftly since 2012 to regulate both infrastructure and content such that is has extensive control of the internet at this point. After the Russian government took broad control of television and media in the early 2000s, the internet was the only place left for free communication. "Now the government is trying to close in on that," says Rachel Denber, the deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. "Its the logical progression of things. Once you go down the road of trying to expand state control over online communication, [banning VPNs] would be the next post to hit."
The Russian government may also be reacting to the current geopolitical situation, in which the country has been called out for hacking numerous Western countries , particularly leading up to democratic elections. "The authorities may also be looking ahead to the 2018 [Russian] presidential election, and they might want to take preemptive steps to ensure that no opposition mobilization takes place online," Denber notes.
For now there are still some ways around the Chinese and Russian governments' internet barriers, if you're willing to accept the risk. iPhones can only download apps from the App Store (unless a unit is jailbroken, which is not impossible but technically difficult, and introduces a host of security vulnerabilities). Android phones, though, can still sideload VPN apps from third-party app stores, since users aren't required to get apps from the Play Store. Google doesn't even operate its Play Store in China. For now, it's also easier to download desktop VPNs than mobile ones.
Other anonymizing tools besides VPNs remain a viable option as well, like the Tor Browser . That may carry more risk in Russia, though, given the recent arrest of someone who ran an Tor exit nodea gateway between the service and the internetthe country recently [lost a Tor exit node] for participating in protests. Using Tor Browser in China, meanwhile, requires extensive technical skill, to get around the Great Firewall.
It's also possible to install VPNs on devices while in other countries, and then use them in Russia or China. And end-to-end encrypted messaging services like Signal are a totally separate way of communicating and potentially receiving uncensored information without dealing with VPNs at all.
Experts report that both China and Russia may enact anti-VPN enforcement through checkpoints and arrests to intimidate citizens. "We are still used in Russia, we still count downloads, our Russian community is actually still growing," CyberGhost's Knapp says. "But instead of simply blocking VPN traffic, the Russian government is pulling another string now. They forbid it and they are going to enforce itmaybe brutally enforce it."
There could be unforeseen side effects as well. At the same time that eliminating these tools helps governments expand surveillance and control access to information, banning them also has the potential to degrade countries' overall security posture. Institutions that don't have access to VPNs could be at increased risk of being infiltrated or breached by foreign attackers. And if repressive governments set their sights on encryption next, they could undermine the integrity of basic economic drivers like secure digital transactions.
The dangers of banning VPNs are clear and pressing from a human rights standpoint. But countries that pursue it regardless may find they lose more than they intended.
- Digital surveillance threats for 2020 - The Star, Kenya - January 18th, 2020
- Teejayx6 Will Steal Your Identityand Rap About It - WIRED - December 2nd, 2019
- Such as the struggle of the Venezuelan economy, some residents turn to a lucrative gig: Cybercrime - Herald Journalism 24 - December 2nd, 2019
- Smart users guide to the snooping game - Livemint - November 17th, 2019
- Privacy on your smartphone: how to protect your data - AndroidPIT - November 17th, 2019
- BBC News heads to the dark web with new Tor mirror - The Verge - October 27th, 2019
- The Tor Project releases Tor Browser 9.0 with several UX improvements - Neowin - October 27th, 2019
- Fraudulent Tor Browser Spies and Has Been Stealing The Bitcoins - GoodTime Nation - October 27th, 2019
- OnionShare Lets Anyone Host Anonymous Sites on the Dark Web - BleepingComputer - October 16th, 2019
- #SecTorCa: Millions of Phones Leaking Information Via Tor - Infosecurity Magazine - October 16th, 2019
- Is there anything we can do to stop someone spying on us? - Newstalk 106-108 fm - August 25th, 2017
- If you're really concerned about browser security, Incognito isn't enough - TechRepublic - August 20th, 2017
- The Daily Stormer has lost its lease, accessible only via Tor browser - The Moderate Voice - August 20th, 2017
- Tor Project 'disgusted' by Daily Stormer, defends software ethos - CNET - August 18th, 2017
- Neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer resurfaces with Russian domain following Google and GoDaddy bans - Vox - August 16th, 2017
- Tor Browser 7.0.4 Download - TechSpot - August 14th, 2017
- Debian-Based Tails 3.1 Anonymous OS Debuts with Tor Browser 7.0.4, Linux 4.9.30 - LXer (press release) - August 11th, 2017
- Tails 3.1 has been released but you'll need to do a manual upgrade - Neowin - August 10th, 2017
- China and Russia go further in squelching Internet freedom - Washington Post - August 10th, 2017
- The FBI Booby-Trapped a Video to Catch a Suspected Tor ... - Motherboard - August 9th, 2017
- Major Improvements Are Coming Soon to the Tor Browser - The Merkle - August 8th, 2017
- Tor Co-Founder: There Is No Dark Web The Merkle - The Merkle - August 3rd, 2017
- Online privacy protection - Choice - CHOICE - August 2nd, 2017
- There Is Basically No Dark Web. It's Only A Few Webpages TOR Co-founder - Fossbytes - July 31st, 2017
- How to Install Tor Browser for Mac and Protect Your Online Activity - iDrop News - July 29th, 2017
- How to get around an ISP blocking a website - MyBroadband - July 26th, 2017
- Don't blame online anonymity for dark web drug deals. - Slate Magazine (blog) - July 26th, 2017
- Tor network will pay you to hack it through new bug bounty program ... - ZDNet - July 21st, 2017
- Tor Project to launch public bug bounty project - CIO Dive - July 21st, 2017
- How to access the dark web - The Daily Dot - July 20th, 2017
- Your Mailman Is a Drug Dealer. He Just Doesn't Know It. - WNYC - July 20th, 2017
- Want porn? Prove your age (or get a VPN) Naked Security - Naked Security - July 20th, 2017
- Suspected AlphaBay founder dies in Bangkok jail after shutdown of online black market - Washington Post - July 19th, 2017
- S. Sudan blocks Sudan Tribune website over hostile coverage - Sudan Tribune - July 19th, 2017
- Assassins and child porn; a darknet offers everything - The Slovak Spectator - July 19th, 2017
- Apple users warned of dangerous new Mac malware that steals banking credentials - ThaiVisa News - July 18th, 2017
- The best security apps to lock down your Android phone - The Daily Dot - July 14th, 2017
- Mozilla is held to a higher standard - Ghacks Technology News - July 14th, 2017
- Privacy blunder? Firefox's Get Add-ons page uses Google Analytics - Ghacks Technology News - July 13th, 2017
- Russia, China vow to kill off VPNs, Tor browser - The Register - July 11th, 2017
- How to safely search the deep web - The Age - The Age - July 11th, 2017
- ACLU's Gillmor on privacy: 'We pay for what we value' (Q&A) - The Parallax (blog) - July 10th, 2017
- What is Tor browser, and is it safe? | Komando.com - July 7th, 2017
- Darknet 101: Your guide to the badlands of the internet - CNET - CNET - July 5th, 2017
- In Reporting on North Korea, Tech Helps Break Through Secrecy - New York Times - July 5th, 2017
- How to safely search the deep web - The Sydney Morning Herald - July 5th, 2017
- TOR Browser - darkwebnews.com - July 5th, 2017
- How To Search The Deep Web Safely - Gizmodo Australia - July 5th, 2017
- Burleson man convicted of accessing child porn from dark website - Fort Worth Star Telegram - July 4th, 2017
- Here Brazilian Journalists Learn Privacy for Themselves and Their Sources - Brazzil.com - June 30th, 2017
- Purism aims to push privacy-centric laptops, tablets and phones to market - Computerworld - June 29th, 2017
- Brazilian site teaches journalists how to protect sources and personal data from digital attacks - Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas (blog) - June 29th, 2017
- The best ways to make your search private in 2017 - KnowTechie - June 28th, 2017
- Bill regulating online anonymizers unanimously passes first ruling in Russian Duma - Washington Times - June 24th, 2017
- The Burger King Ad That Activated Google Home Just Won A Prestigious Award - XDA Developers (blog) - June 24th, 2017
- Mozilla's new Android browser blocks ads and trackers - Boing Boing - June 22nd, 2017
- Secure OS Tails 3.0 Launches With Debian 9 Base, Redesigned ... - Tom's Hardware - June 15th, 2017
- Tails OS hits version 3.0, matches Debian's pace but bins 32-bit systems - The Register - June 14th, 2017
- Tor Browser 7.0 is released | The Tor Blog - June 10th, 2017
- Tor Browser 7.0 works harder to protect your anonymity on its own - Engadget - June 10th, 2017
- Tor Browser 7.0 released - gHacks Tech News - Ghacks Technology News - June 8th, 2017
- Tor Browser 7.0 arrives with multiprocess mode, content sandbox, and Unix domain sockets - VentureBeat - June 7th, 2017
- Wikipedians Want to Put Wikipedia on the Dark Web - Motherboard - June 7th, 2017
- What The Dark Web Is And How To Access It - Komando - June 3rd, 2017
- What is Deep Web and How is it Different from Dark Web - Guiding Tech (blog) - June 1st, 2017
- If You Think WannaCry is Huge, Wait for EternalRocks - Data Center Knowledge - June 1st, 2017
- DOJ, FBI Executives Approved Running a Child Porn Site - Motherboard - May 30th, 2017
- What is Tor, How It Works And Where to Download the Tor Browser? Everything You Need To Know - MobiPicker - May 30th, 2017
- WannaCry 2.0: EternalRocks author calls it quits - TheINQUIRER - The INQUIRER - May 28th, 2017
- Data For Sale: What Everyday Consumers Can Do To Keep Their Info Safe - Forbes - May 26th, 2017
- Fearing surveillance in the age of Trump, activists study up on digital anonymity - Washington Post - May 26th, 2017
- EternalRocks Attack Spreads While Using Same Exploit As WannaCry Ransomware - Yahoo News UK - May 23rd, 2017
- Tor browser for Android that is better than Orfox is in the works - Android Kenya (blog) - May 23rd, 2017
- Organizations Can Combat WannaCry & Jaff Ransomware With Well Instrumented DNS - Techzone360 - May 23rd, 2017
- This Spy App Can See If You've Visited Whistleblowing Sites on the Dark Web - Motherboard - May 20th, 2017
- Why Nigerian CIOs should care about the dark web - ITWeb Africa - May 20th, 2017
- A hack has put data of 17 million Zomato users at risk: Should India be worried? - DailyO - May 20th, 2017
- New Jaff Ransomware Part Of Active Necurs Spam Blitz - Threatpost - May 13th, 2017
- Three vulnerabilities allow spies to detect Tor browsers - Cloud Pro - May 9th, 2017
- Tor Browser - TechRadar - May 6th, 2017