Information Warfare: Coping With The VPN Threat

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June 16, 2022: Russia is encountering major problems trying to control the information made available to the public. This became a critical problem after the invasion of Ukraine and the government wanted to conceal the extent of their military failures. Passing new laws against disclosing such information and shutting down the last few media operations that were not state controlled was not enough. A decade ago, Russia passed a law mandating that ISPs (Internet service providers) quickly block websites deemed to be a threat to the public. The initial law was aimed at information promoting child sexual abuse, terrorism or illegal drugs. That was soon extended to military information, like casualties in foreign wars or among conscripts in Russia. The ban on casualty information created a lot of public protest. One of the more common tools for evading censors has been the VPN (Virtual Private Networks). The Russian resistance escalated as the government sought to ban VPNs that refused to submit to government monitoring. Such monitoring was what VPNs were invented to bypass and evade. The worldwide software development community creates new software and updates existing apps that make it more difficult for governments, especially the Chinese and Russians, to engage in censorship and government eavesdropping.

Since 2014 China has taken the lead in cracking down on VPN use with more and more effective methods. Russia went even further and proposed emulating North Korea and turning their Internet into an intranet. That is a Russian Internet separate from the rest of the world. This generated a lot of resistance from the Russian scientific and business community. Russia scaled back its intranet plans and instead began working towards creating a national Internet/Intranet that can be activated on short notice and function as a national Intranet for as long as necessary. Some tests of this tech have already been conducted and given a nationwide test in late 2019 and that test was proclaimed a success even though the Intranet was not fully functional and that was not expected to happen for a few years. Then Ukraine was invaded in early 2022 and the Russian intranet capabilities were revealed to be as unreliable as the Russian military. Government efforts to hide their military failures generated more popular opposition to the Intranet project. The active resistance came from Russian expatriates as well as those still in Russia. Many of those who left Russia did so to escape the growing police-state practices of the “democratic” government that has evolved into a dictatorship over the last two decades.

Russia has been exporting its Internet control tech to other nations, like Turkmenistan and Belarus, which were formerly parts of the Soviet Union and, like Russia, have reverted to dictatorship. Cuba, also a communist police state, has also adopted Russian Internet control methods as has Iran, a Moslem religious dictatorship. China has also exported its Internet and social control tech to nations like Turkey, Pakistan, Oman, the UAE and Eritrea. These nations want to impose a lot of control on their Internet users and what the Chinese and Russians are offering seems to work. Moslem majority nations, even technically democratic ones like Pakistan, have eagerly sought out and adopted Internet control and censorship technology.

Governments in general, even true democracies, have sought to better control Internet use by their own citizens. This is usually justified by the need to safeguard public morality (from porn, especially child pornography) and enforce existing laws, mainly copyrights. Many Internet users see all this as more governments seeking to retain power over information, especially about government misbehavior.

Most of the global population now has access to the Internet, often via smartphones that are actually very small computers possessing more computing power and data storage than much larger computers businesses were using in the 1980s. This rapid increase of computing power and availability caused authoritarian governments to lose control of the mass media (print and later broadcast) which, for over a century, had enabled dictators to control what their people knew of the world and in their own countries. Even in democracies many elected leaders, and even more unelected bureaucrats, resented and feared the information freedom enjoyed by a population where the majority of people were enthusiastic users of the Internet and hostile to government efforts to control or censor it.

In un-democratic nations, the Internet was a very real threat to dictatorial leaders. As Internet use grew so did efforts to control it. Early on Internet users believed that governments were at a permanent disadvantage when it came to information control. Not just because the Internet now existed and was more widely available than telephones ever were, but because the Internet was originally designed to survive massive disruption, like a nuclear war, and keep functioning. American military researchers were given the task of creating that type of system in the 1960s and, within two decades, the fundamental Internet tech was operational but only available to military and academic researchers. The early Internet was never a secret as it ultimately had to be widely available to work. That came when it slowly became commercialized in the 1990s. Then the web browser was invented in 1993 followed by the World Wide Web, and Internet use skyrocketed. At the same time cell phones were becoming smaller, cheaper and more widely available. By 2000 the Internet as we know it was rapidly developing and spreading.

China was particularly determined to tame the Internet, which continues to enable too many Chinese to speak freely with each other and billions of other Internet users outside China. By late 2017 it became clear that the latest anti-VPN measures had backfired. A growing number of foreign firms, whose VPN use is supposed to be unrestricted, were finding their VPNs rendered useless by Chinese censors. Worse, the Chinese government was slow to fix these problems and it was no secret that many Chinese leaders would like to drive most foreign companies out of China without admitting that sort of thing is Chinese policy.

The VPN situation got much worse in 2015 when China made a major effort to block Chinese from free access to the international Internet. This involved new censorship software to detect and block the use of VPNs that have been used to access forbidden websites outside China. In 2015 it was estimated that as many as ten percent of Chinese Internet users got past the “Great Firewall Of China'' using VPNs and other technical tools. The government also rolled out powerful new data mining and screening software checks for anti-government posts in real-time. The problem with blocking all this is that many of these wall piercers are just curious or, more importantly, business users who need this international access to remain competitive. While the government will grant international access for business and academic users, permits are difficult to get and still involve some censorship. As expected, the Great Firewall crossers are finding other ways to access the outside world and the struggle continues.

Despite all this censorship, Chinese and Russians continue to discuss forbidden subjects, mainly about corruption at the top and those who openly protest the corruption and bad government. Chinese and Russian censors are not really going after individual offenders as much as they are seeking to prevent mass unrest from being ignited. Sometimes even the arrest and punishment of Internet offenders is not publicized, lest this gets a mass protest movement going. China and Russia have a growing problem with large groups of people hitting the streets to protest in the flesh. With the large amount of government corruption and inefficiency, there's a lot to protest. The Internet is seen as essential economically, but also the chief means of local protests turning into major ones. That is not to be allowed, at all costs. That approach has not worked so far but has made Internet use more difficult and limited in many parts of the world. Worst of all, Internet users still find a way to complain to each other about Internet censorship. The Internet has changed the relationship between rulers and ruled worldwide and returning to the bad old days is no longer an option.

 


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