Russian netizens learn how to counter Putin’s internet crackdown

(CNN) – A digital iron curtain could descend 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 step in that direction came on Friday as the government announced its intention to block Instagram in the country as well.

But despite Putin’s efforts to clamp down on social media and news inside his borders, a growing number of Russian internet users seem determined to access outside sources and circumvent Kremlin restrictions.

To defeat internet censorship in Russia, many are turning to specialized circumvention technology that has been widely used in other countries with restricted online freedoms, including China and Iran. Digital rights experts say Putin may have inadvertently sparked a massive and permanent shift in digital literacy in Russia that will go against the regime for years to come.

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 such as Facebook or securely share information. on the war in Ukraine without encountering new drastic measures. laws prohibiting what Russian authorities consider to be “false” statements about the conflict.

A rapid increase in downloads

During the week of February 28, Russian internet users downloaded the top five VPN apps from Apple and Google’s app stores a total of 2.7 million times, almost tripling demand from the week. previous year, according to market research firm SensorTower. .

This growth is consistent with what some VPN providers have reported. Swiss company Proton, for example, told CNN Business it saw a 1,000% increase in registrations from Russia this month. (The company declined to provide a benchmark figure for comparison, however.)

VPN providers are just one type of app with higher usage in Russia. Since March 1, a range of messaging apps, including Meta’s Messenger services and WhatsApp, have seen a gradual increase in traffic, internet monitoring platform Cloudflare said, a trend consistent with an increase in traffic. to global social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram. and Tik Tok.

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

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

In recent weeks, Russian Internet users also appear to have increased their reliance on Tor, a service that anonymizes Internet browsing by scrambling a user’s traffic and bouncing it around multiple servers around the world. From the day of the Ukraine invasion, the Tor metrics page estimated that thousands more Russian users were accessing the web through secret servers connected to Tor’s decentralized network.

Tor users received a helping hand from Twitter on Tuesday, as the social network – which was partially blocked in Russia after the invasion – added the 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.

And Lantern, a peer-to-peer tool that routes internet traffic around government firewalls, started seeing more downloads from Russia about two months ago, said Penn Communications professor Sascha Meinrath. State University who sits on the board of Lantern’s parent company. , Brave new software.

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

“Tor, Lantern, all VPNs, anything that hides who you are or where you’re going – Telegram – everything, downloads are increasing dramatically,” Meinrath said. “And it’s a bootstrapping thing, so people who are on Telegram, they use it to swap notes about what else you should download.”

According to Meinrath, the most tech-savvy and privacy-conscious users know how to combine multiple tools to maximize their protection, such as using Lantern to circumvent government blocks while using Tor to anonymize their activity.

The information technology war

The growing importance of some of these tools highlights the stakes for Russian internet users, as the Kremlin has detained thousands of people for protesting the war in Ukraine. And that stands in contrast to the steps Russia has taken to clamp down on social media, from completely blocking Facebook to passing a law that threatens up to 15 years in prison for those who share what the Kremlin considers “false” information about the war.

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

In the past, the Russian government has attempted to block Tor and VPN providers, Krapiva said. But it hasn’t been very successful, she said, due to Tor’s open, decentralized design that relies on many distributed servers and the willingness of new VPN providers to fill the void left by prohibited. Russia now faces an escalating game of cat and mouse, Krapiva 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 wider information war and prevent their adoption.

In February. On February 28, Signal said it was aware of rumors suggesting the platform had been compromised in a hack – a claim the company has categorically denied. Without blaming Russia directly, Signal said he suspected the rumors were spreading as part of a “coordinated disinformation campaign designed to encourage people to use less safe alternatives.”

Signal’s assertion underscores how quickly the information war has evolved from news originating in Ukraine to the services people use to access and discuss that news.

If only a small minority of Russians end up adopting circumvention technologies to gain access to outside information, it could allow Putin to dominate the information space in the country. And while there are plenty of indications of growing interest in these tools, it appears to be on the scale of thousands, not millions, at least for now.

“The concern, of course, is that the majority of people, the general population, aren’t necessarily aware of these tools,” Krapiva said. “[They] can be complex if your digital literacy is low enough, so getting more of the population to actually adopt these tools will remain difficult. But I’m sure there will be more education and I want to keep hope that they will persevere.

Normalize censorship-resistant technology

Some digital rights experts say it’s important that these tools are also used for ordinary, innocuous Internet activity, not just potentially subversive activity. Performing mundane tasks like checking email, streaming movies or talking to friends using these technologies makes it harder for authoritarian regimes to justify their repression, and can make it harder to identify efforts to violate government restrictions on speech and access.

“The more regular users use censorship-resistant technology for everyday activities like unblocking movies, the better,” said 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 the government restrictions will likely trigger not only wider adoption of circumvention tools in Russia, but also additional research and development of new tools by Russia’s highly skilled and tech-savvy population.

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

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