Russian netizens learn to beat Putin’s online campaign

CNN Business

A digital Iron Curtain may come down on Russia, as President Vladimir Putin struggles to control the narrative of his war in Ukraine. The Kremlin has already moved to block Facebook and Twitter, and its latest move in that direction came on Friday as 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 his borders, a growing number of Russian netizens appear determined to access outside sources and circumvent the Kremlin’s restrictions.

To defeat Russian Internet censorship, many are turning to specialized circumvention technology that is widely used in other countries with restricted Internet freedoms, including China and Iran. Digital rights experts say Putin may have inadvertently caused a massive and lasting shift in digital literacy in Russia that will work against the regime for years.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russians have been streaming virtual private networks (VPNs) and encrypted messaging applications, tools that can be used to access blocked websites like Facebook or safely share news about the war in Ukraine without being exposed to new and draconian laws banning what Russian authorities consider allegations.” false” about the dispute.

During the week of February 28, Russian internet users downloaded the five leading VPN apps on Apple and Google’s app stores a total of 2.7 million times, a nearly threefold increase in demand compared to the previous week, according to market research firm SensorTower. .

This growth is consistent with what some VPN service providers have reported. For example, Switzerland-based Proton told CNN Business that it has seen a 1,000% increase in subscriptions from Russia this month. (However, the company declined to provide a base figure for comparison.)

VPN providers are only one type of application that is seeing more popularity in Russia. Since March 1, a handful of messaging apps, including Meta Messenger and WhatsApp services, have seen a gradual increase in traffic, internet monitoring platform Cloudflare reported, a trend that aligns 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, up more than 28% from the previous week. Russian internet traffic to Signal has seen “significant growth” since March 1, Cloudflare told CNN Business.

SensorTower said other private messaging apps, such as Telegram, experienced a relative slowdown in growth this week, but still saw more than half a million downloads in that time frame.

In recent weeks, Russian internet users appear to have increased their reliance on Tor, a service that anonymizes web browsing by obfuscate and echo user traffic across multiple servers around the world. As the day of the invasion of Ukraine began, the Tor metrics page estimated that thousands more Russian users were accessing the Internet through secret servers connected to the decentralized Tor network.

Tor users got a helping hand from Twitter on Tuesday, as the social network was partially blocked in Russia after the invasion – Added ability To access its platform through a specialized website designed for Tor users. Facebook, for its part, has had its own Tor site since 2014.

Sasha Minrath, a communications professor at Penn State University and a board member of Lantern’s parent company, said Lantern, a tool that routes Internet traffic around government firewalls, started seeing more downloads from Russia starting about two months ago. Brave new programme.

Minrath said Lantern has seen a 2,000% increase in downloads from Russia alone in the past two months, as the service went from 5,000 users per month in Russia to more than 120,000. By comparison, Meinrath said, Lantern has between 2 million and 3 million users globally, mostly in China and Iran.

“Tor, Lantern, all VPNs, anything that hides who you are or where you’re going – Telegram – everything, downloads are increasing exponentially,” Minrath said. “It’s great, so people on Telegram are using that to share feedback on what to download as well.”

Users who are more tech-savvy and privacy-conscious, Meinrath said, know how to combine multiple tools together to maximize their protection — for example, using Lantern to get around government blocks while also using Tor to anonymize their activity.

The growing importance of some of these tools highlights the risks faced by Russian netizens as the Kremlin has detained thousands of people for protesting the war in Ukraine. It contrasts with steps Russia has taken to clamp down on social media, from banning Facebook outright to passing a law threatening up to 15 years in prison for anyone who spreads what the Kremlin considers “false” information about the war.

Some Russian internet users have been using secure communications tools for years, as the Russian government began restricting internet freedoms more than a decade ago, said Natalia Krapeva, a lawyer with digital rights group Access Now.

Krapiva said the Russian government has tried in the past to block Tor and VPN providers. But it said that wasn’t very successful, given Tor’s open and decentralized design that hinges on many distributed servers and the willingness of new VPN providers to fill the void left by the outlaws. What Russia now faces is an intense cat-and-mouse game, Krabieva said.

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

in February. On September 28, Signal said it was aware of rumors that the platform had been hacked – an allegation the company has denied outright. Without directly blaming Russia, Signal said it suspects the rumors are being spread as part of a coordinated disinformation campaign aimed at encouraging people to use less safe alternatives.

Signal’s claim underscores how quickly information warfare has evolved from being about news coming from Ukraine to being about the services people use to access and discuss that news.

If a small minority of Russians end up adopting circumvention techniques to gain access to outside information, it could allow Putin to gain control of the information space within the country. And while there are many signs of a growing interest in these tools, they seem to be in the thousands, not millions, at least for the time being.

“The concern, of course, is that the majority of people, the general population, may not necessarily know about these tools,” Krabiva said. “[They] It can be complicated if your digital literacy level is very low, so it will still be a challenge for a larger section of the population to truly adopt these tools. But I am sure there will be more education and I want to remain optimistic that they will persevere.”

Some digital rights experts say it’s important to use these tools for normal and harmless internet activities as well, not just potentially disruptive activities. Performing mundane tasks such as checking email, accessing movies or talking to friends using these technologies makes it difficult for authoritarian regimes to justify their repression, and can make it more difficult to identify efforts to violate government restrictions on speech and access.

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

This may only be the beginning. Minrath said that government restrictions will likely lead not only to broader adoption of circumvention tools in Russia but also more research and development of new tools by the highly skilled and technologically savvy Russian population.

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