Vladimir Putin’s reign over Russia has been marked by attacks on independent journalism, the invasion of Georgia and the Ukraine, state approval of violence against gays and lesbians, and the most bloated, corrupt Winter Olympics in history, so it’s not particularly surprising to see the Kremlin preparing to move against Tor and VPN services.
On February 5, Leonid Levin, chairman of the Russian State Duma Committee on Information Policy and Communication claimed that anonymizing services would actually improve Russian computer security by curbing the distribution of malware and spyware. Then, Russia’s Roskomnadzor — think “FCC + State-sponsored censorship bureau” — released a statement announcing that it would support any move to restrict access to Tor or similar anonymizing services. On top of that, the Russian Safe internet League has released statements that vow support for limiting access to Tor and other services, claiming “Do not forget that Tor is an American development and it’s used by American intelligence agencies to expand U.S. hegemony around the world: agents and collaborators of the U.S. Department of State, invisible to the authorities of different countries, engage in illegal activities against those countries.”
The growing consensus is that Russia is preparing to move on blocking Tor or other VPN software. Tor is quite popular in Russia, accounting for 6.54% of the website’s total use (only Germany and the United States are higher, at 9.08% and 16.21% respectively). Russian Tor use has spiked since last May when the government began cracking down on bloggers and forcing them to register. Supposedly up to 25% of all Russian users now use a VPN service, though this figure can’t be independently verified. In the US, VPN usage is primarily a business feature or a way to avoid ISP toll roads, but in countries with greater levels of censorship, they serve a more fundamental purpose.
The Russian government has decried Tor as a haven for child pornography and illicit content, spurred on by the development of the Silk Road and other darknet-hosted websites. Claims that 80% of Tor traffic related to child pornography made headlines last year, but that statement referred specifically to Tor’s hidden services. Those services account for just 1.5% of the total traffic that Tor carries. The government may still be smarting after last year, when activists used Tor to organize protests after Roskomnadzor blocked a Facebook page calling for a rally on January 15, 2014 to support Alexei Navalny, a noted critic of Vladimir Putin. Another anti-Putin protest is reportedly scheduled for March 1, which could be part of the reason why the government is advancing plans to further restrict access to VPNs and anonymizing networks.
More generally, Russia’s willingness to crack down on Internet infrastructure is a sign that governments are aware of the potential threat that online meeting points and viral content can pose in certain circumstances — and, to some extent, a refutation of the idea that Internet access would automatically gnaw away at censorship. When China announced it would construct its Great Firewall, plenty of pundits either swore the technology would never work, or that citizens would find ways around it en masse. In reality, China now employs an estimated two million Internet police and has the most sophisticated censorship mechanism in the world.
The strategic value of information control
The Kremlin is well aware of the value of information control. After MH17 was shot down last year over Ukraine, Western authorities quickly concluded that the plane had been shot down by a surface to air missile fired from a Soviet-designed Bulk missile system. Westerners were told that the leader of the Ukrainian separatists had posted accounts to social media claiming credit for the kill and multiple journalists from various news bureaus confirmed seeing a Buk missile launcher in separatist territory.
In Russia, in contrast, the crash was unilaterally attributed to Ukrainian separatist actions, with 80% of surveyed Russians claiming that MH17 was shot down by the Ukranian military. In the aftermath of the event, many pundits predicted that Putin would be forced to come to the negotiating table. In reality, Putin faced no internal dissent over the incident — the majority of Russians believe MH17 was shot down in either a cold-blooded attempt to frame their country or due to sheer incompetence. Many of Russia’s moves, like requiring all bloggers to register with the government, are a creeping attempt to control the flow of information within the country and to shape the greater narratives that the media discuss and disperse to the population.
Shutting down Tor and other VPN services, or making it far more difficult for them to operate, is a vital step in locking down the flow of alternate explanations for events — and if Putin is keen on restoring the type of media control that the old Soviet system was known for, it’s absolutely vital.
Author: Joel Hruska
Source: Extreme Tech