Russian internet users learn to beat Putin’s internet crackdown

CNN Business

A digital Iron Curtain may descend on Russia as President Vladimir Putin struggles to control narratives about his war in Ukraine. The Kremlin has already moved to block Facebook and Twitter, and the latest step in that direction came on Friday when the government announced plans to block Instagram in the country as well.

But despite Putin’s efforts to clamp down on social media and information within its borders, a growing number of Russian internet users appear determined to access foreign sources and circumvent Kremlin restrictions.

To defeat Russian internet censorship, many are turning to special evasion technology widely used in other countries where online freedoms are restricted, including China and Iran. Digital rights experts say that Putin may accidentally trigger a massive, permanent shift in digital literacy in Russia that will work against the regime for years.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russians have flocked to virtual private networks (VPNs) and encrypted messaging apps, tools that can be used to access blocked websites like Facebook or securely share news about the war in Ukraine. Laws banning “false” claims by Russian authorities about the conflict.

According to market research firm SensorTower, during the week of February 28, Russian Internet users downloaded five leading VPN applications in Apple and Google’s app stores a total of 2.7 million times, which is a nearly three-fold increase in demand compared to the previous week. .

This increase is in line with what some VPN providers have reported. Switzerland-based Proton, for example, told CNN Business that it saw a 1,000% increase in registrations from Russia this month. (However, the company declined to provide a baseline figure for comparison.)

VPN providers are just one type of software that is seeing more adoption in Russia. A number of messaging apps, including Meta’s Messenger and WhatsApp services, have seen a gradual increase in traffic since March 1, internet infrastructure company Cloudflare said, a trend consistent with increased traffic to global social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. and TikTok.

But perhaps the fastest growing messaging app in Russia is the encrypted messaging app Signal. SensorTower said Signal was downloaded 132,000 times in the country last week, an increase of more than 28% from the previous week. Cloudflare told CNN Business that Internet traffic to Russia’s Signal has seen a “significant increase” since March 1.

Other private messaging apps like Telegram saw a relative slowdown in growth that week, but still saw more than half a million downloads during the period, SensorTower said.

In recent weeks, Russian internet users have also increased their reliance on the Tor service, which anonymizes their web browsing by hacking a user’s traffic and bouncing it through multiple servers around the world. Since the day of the invasion of Ukraine, Tor’s metrics page estimates that thousands more Russian users are accessing the Internet through hidden servers connected to Tor’s decentralized network.

Users of the social network Tor, which has been partially blocked since the invasion of Russia, received a helping hand from Twitter on Tuesday. added the skill Accessing its platform through a dedicated website for Tor users. Facebook, for its part, has had its own Tor site since 2014.

Penn State University communications professor Sascha Meinrath, who sits on the board of Lantern’s parent company, said Lantern, a peer-to-peer tool that routes Internet traffic around government firewalls, began seeing more downloads from Russia about two months ago. , Brave New Software.

Meinrath said Lantern has seen a 2,000% increase in downloads from Russia alone over the past two months, with the service growing from 5,000 monthly users in Russia to 120,000. By comparison, Meinrath said, Lantern has 2 million to 3 million users globally, mostly in China and Iran.

“Tor, Lantern, all the VPNs, anything that masks who you are or where you’re going—Telegram—everything, downloads are skyrocketing,” Meinrath said. “And it’s a download thing, so people on Telegram are using it to change notes about what else you should download.”

Meinrath said that the most tech-savvy and privacy-conscious users know how to combine several tools to maximize their protection — using Lantern to bypass government blocks, for example, and using Tor to anonymize their activity.

The growing popularity of some of these tools underscores the risks for Russian internet users as the Kremlin jails thousands of people protesting the war in Ukraine. And it contrasts with Russia’s moves to clamp down on social media, from blocking Facebook entirely to passing a law threatening up to 15 years behind bars for those who share what the Kremlin deems “fake” information about the war.

Natalia Krapiva, a lawyer at the digital rights group Access Now, said some Russian internet users have been using secure communications for years since the Russian government began restricting internet freedoms more than a decade ago.

In the past, the Russian government has tried to block Tor and VPN providers, Krapiva said. But he said Tor has not been as successful because of its open, decentralized design, which relies on many distributed servers, and because of the willingness of new VPN providers to fill the void left by the banned ones. Krapiva said that what Russia is currently facing is an intensifying cat-and-mouse game.

But while Putin may not be able to completely shut down censorship-resistant technologies, Kremlin supporters can still drag him into Russia’s broader information war and block its adoption.

In February. On the 28th, Signal said it was aware of rumors about the platform being hacked – a claim the company strongly denied. Without directly blaming Russia, Signal said it suspected the rumors were being spread as “part of a coordinated disinformation campaign aimed at encouraging people to use less secure alternatives.”

The whistleblower’s claim underscores how rapidly the information war is evolving, from the news from Ukraine to the services people use to access and discuss that news.

If only a small minority of Russians adopt evasion technologies to gain access to foreign information, it could allow Putin to dominate the information space within the country. And while there are many signs that interest in these tools is growing, at least for now, it appears to be in the thousands rather than the millions.

“The concern, of course, is that most people, the general population, don’t necessarily know about these tools,” Krapiva said. “[They] it can be complicated if your digital literacy is quite low, so it will remain a challenge for a larger part of the population to actually adopt these tools. But I’m sure there will be more education, and I want to hope that they will be patient.”

Some digital rights experts say it’s important that these tools are used for normal and harmless internet activities, not potential subverts. Performing routine tasks such as checking e-mail, accessing streaming movies, or talking to friends using these technologies makes it difficult for authoritarian regimes to justify pressures against them and can make it difficult to identify government efforts to violate access and access restrictions.

“The more regular users use censorship-resistant technology for everyday activities like unblocking movies, the better,” says John Scott-Railton, a security and disinformation researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.

And this may just be the beginning. Meinrath said that the government restrictions are not likely to lead to wider adoption of evasion tools in Russia, but to more research and development of new tools by Russia’s highly skilled and tech-savvy population.

“We are at the beginning of the J curve,” Meinrath said, adding: “This is a one-way transformation in Russia.”

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