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Russian internet users are learning to overcome Putin’s internet crackdown

However, despite Putin’s efforts to crack down on social media and information within the border, the number of Russian Internet users continues to grow, trying to access external sources to circumvent the Kremlin’s restrictions. Seems to be determined.

To defeat Russia’s Internet censorship, many are looking to special evasion techniques that are widely used in other countries with limited online freedom, such as China and Iran. Will work against the government for years.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russians have been flocking to virtual private networks (VPNs) and encrypted messaging apps. You can use these tools to visit blocked websites such as Facebook and securely share news about the war in Ukraine. A law prohibiting what Russian authorities consider to be “fake” claims about disputes.

According to market research firm Sensor Tower, in the week of February 28, Russian internet users downloaded five major VPN apps to Apple, and Google’s app store totaled 2.7 million times in demand compared to the previous week. It has increased nearly three times. ..

Its growth is in line with what some VPN providers have reported. For example, Switzerland-based Proton told CNN Business that the number of registrations from Russia surged 1,000% this month (although the company did not provide baseline values ​​for comparison).

VPN providers are just one type of application that is popular in Russia. As traffic for various messaging apps, such as Meta’s Messenger and WhatsApp services, has gradually increased since March 1, Internet infrastructure company Cloudflare says it tends to match the increase. Traffic to global social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.

But perhaps Russia’s fastest growing messaging app is the encrypted messaging app Signal. According to SensorTower, Signal was downloaded 132,000 times in the country last week, up more than 28% from the previous week. Russian Internet traffic to Signal Cloudflare told CNN Business “significant growth” since March 1.

Other private messaging apps, such as Telegram, have seen more than 500,000 downloads during the period, although growth slowed relatively during the week, Sensor Tower said.

Over the last few weeks, Russian Internet users seem to be increasingly reliant on Tor, a service that anonymizes Internet browsing by scrambling user traffic and bouncing through multiple servers around the world. .. Thousands more Russian users were accessing the Web through a secret server connected to Tor’s distributed network.
Tor users received help from Twitter on Tuesday. This is because it is a social network that was partially blocked in Russia after the intrusion. Added ability Access the platform from a dedicated website designed for Tor users. Facebook has its own Tor site since 2014.

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

According to Meinrath, Lantern downloads have increased by 2,000% in Russia alone in the last two months, with monthly users in Russia exceeding 5,000 to 120,000. By comparison, Lantern has 2 to 3 million downloads. Users all over the world, mainly China and Iran.

“Tor, Lantern, all VPNs, the ones that obscure who you are and where you’re going — Telegram — all, downloads are increasing dramatically,” Meinrath said. They are using it to exchange notes about what else to download. ”

According to Meinrath, tech-savvy and privacy-conscious users know how to combine multiple tools to maximize protection. For example, you can use Lantern to avoid government blocking and Tor to anonymize your activities.

Information technology war

The increasing attention of some of these tools as the Kremlin detained thousands of people in protest of the war in Ukraine highlights a bet for Russian internet users. Passing a law that threatens a delay of up to 15 years for those who share what the Kremlin considers to be “disinformation” about the war.

Natalia Krapiva, a lawyer for digital rights group AccessNow, said that some Russian Internet users have been using secure communication tools for years as the Russian government began limiting Internet freedom more than a decade ago. Said.

In the past, the Russian government tried to block Tor and VPN providers, according to Krapiva, but with less success due to Tor’s open and decentralized design, which relies on many distributed servers, and the willingness to create new VPNs. That is. Russia is currently facing an intensifying game of cats and mice, Mr. Krapiva said.

However, Putin may not be able to completely shut down censorship-resistant technology, but Kremlin proponents can try to drag it into Russia’s broader information warfare and prevent its adoption.

On February 28, Signal said it was aware of rumors suggesting that the platform had been compromised by a hack. The company totally denied this. Without directly blaming Russia, Signal said he suspected that the rumors “may have spread as part of the coordinated misinformation.” The campaign was aimed at encouraging people to use insecure alternatives. ”

Signal’s claim emphasizes the rapid evolution of information warfare from news originating from Ukraine to services that people use to access and discuss the news.

If only a few Russians decide to adopt evasion techniques to access external information, it may allow Putin to dominate the domestic information space. There are many signs of growing interest in these tools, but at least for now, on a scale of thousands instead of millions.

“Of course, the concern is that the vast majority of people, the general public, don’t always know about those tools,” Krapiva said.[They] Getting more people to actually adopt these tools is still a challenge, as it can be complicated if digital literacy is very low, but we are confident that education will increase further and they will do their best. I hope you will. .. ”

Normalization of censorship-resistant technology

Some digital rights experts say it’s important to use these tools not only for potentially destructive things, but also for normal harmless Internet activities. Using these technologies to perform routine tasks such as checking email, accessing streaming movies, and talking with friends can be difficult for authoritarians. It can make it more difficult to identify mechanisms to justify cracking down on them, and efforts to violate government restrictions on speech and access.

John Scott Railton, a security and disinformation researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, said:

Government regulation is likely to not only increase the adoption of evasion tools in Russia, but also trigger further research and development of new tools by people familiar with Russia’s advanced skills and technology, Meinrath said. rice field.

“We are at the beginning of the J-curve, which is a one-way transformation in Russia,” Meinrath added.


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