Black Friday

Russia mulls crackdown on VPN and Tor

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

February 13, 2015

Russia is hardly famous for being a haven for tolerance and free speech, and it probably comes as no surprise to readers that PRISM-like surveillance by the FBS (successors to the KGB), which has been greatly expanded during the 14 years of Putin’s rule, ‘draconian’ new blogger laws, a clampdown on social media leading the removal of pages linked with demonstrations and protests, plus a wider atmosphere of fear resulting from numerous attacks on LGBT campaigners, environmental and human rights activists, and journalists, has resulted in a boom in the use of privacy and anti-censorship technologies.

Through the use of VPN and Tor, it is a fairly trivial matter for ordinary Russians to bypass blocks on websites and social media platforms, as well as to achieve a high degree of privacy from blanket surveillance programs such as SORM. In fact, according to a report (Google translate) by Russian TV business news channel RBC, citing figured gathered by GlobalWebIndex, a staggering 25 percent of Russian internet users hide their online activity using some form of VPN (‘10% of them – for fun’ (?!)), while 150,000 citizens regularly use Tor.

Unfortunately, Russian authorities are also well aware of this, and the FSB has in the past made quite aggressive statements about plans to ban Tor and internet ‘anonymizers’, and the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) at one point somewhat bizarrely offered hackers a 3.9 million Ruble (approx.$110,000 USD) prize for cracking Tor!

So far, however, nothing has come of these, but it looks as if tackling the ‘problem’ of Russians being able to access the internet unrestricted and unmonitored may be back on the government’s agenda.

At the 17th National Forum of Information Security (Infoforum-2015), MP and deputy head of the Duma Committee on Information Politics, Leonid Levin, made the following statement,

One of the factors in the formation of the Internet environment in our country has become the authority for the pre-trial blocking of websites. It allows us to block sites banned in Russia quickly enough. At the same time the pre-trial blocking of anonymizing services deserves attention, such as access to the anonymous network Tor.

Levin said that by banning such ‘anonymizing services’, Russia would restrict citizens’ access to blocked content, help stop the spread of commercial malicious software, and prevent anonymous file transfers. He also proposed expanding the powers of Roskomnadzor, the federal body responsible for overseeing internet communications.

This view was supported by Roskomnadzor’s chief press officer, Vadim Ampelonskogo, who described the Tor Network as a ‘den of criminals’ and ‘ghouls, all gathered in one place,’ and said that although blocking Tor and VPN would not be easy, it was technically feasible if supported by ‘a relevant regulatory framework’.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for many readers will be that Tor, VPN, and other encryption technologies are not already banned in Russia, but it does seem that on-line life for Russians is likely to more difficult and more restricted. However, as the China’s Great Firewall demonstrates, blocking privacy technologies at a national level is a monumental task, and given the cat-and-mouse nature of any such effort, is always likely to be a very imperfect solution…

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