For the second time since 2014 the United States is supporting efforts that help Russians to bypass government censorship to reach the outside world and search for information that will clarify what is going on in Ukraine. The official Russian version about what is going on in Ukraine is contradicted by what surviving Russian veterans of the fighting are reporting. The information provided by soldiers who have been there, or parents seeking to find out what happened to their sons in the army, has caused growing reluctance to support the Russian operations in Ukraine. More Russians are refusing to report when they receive a conscription notice. Calls for volunteers to serve in Ukraine are being ignored, even at higher pay, as in three to ten times the average monthly income of civilians. The government refuses to provide any clarification, pointing out that such information is a state secret.
The United States is now financing efforts to provide Russian citizens with free access to VPN (Virtual Private Networks) that the Russian government cannot eavesdrop on or shut down. This effort, which began before the invasion began in late February, rose from 48,000 Russian users a day before February to a million a day a month later. Currently over four million Russian a day are using this access to reach foreign websites and communicate with anyone they know living outside Russia. Over a million Russians have left Russia since the invasion began and millions have left since the 2014 Russian operation that seized Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine (Donbas). Most Russians seek out news on the Ukraine fighting at a variety of foreign news sites, including those that provide the news in Russian. This includes Ukrainian news sites. Even the news sites in counties that back Russia (Iran and China) offer more information about the war than the Russian government does.
The first time the U.S. offered Russian uncensored access to the Internet was in 2014 when the Americans financed efforts to provide access to the Tor (The Onion Router). This worked and the Russian government was so alarmed that in mid-2014 it offered a prize of $111,000 for whoever could deliver, by August 20th 2014, software that would allow Russian security services to identify people on the Internet who were using the Tor Onion Router. Tor is a system that enables users to access the Internet anonymously. On August 22nd Russia announced that an unnamed Russian contractor, with a top security clearance, had received the $111,000 prize. No other details were provided at the time.
A year later it was revealed that the winner of the Tor prize was now spending even more on lawyers to try and get out of the contract to crack Tor’s security. It seems the winner found that his theoretical solution was too difficult to implement effectively. In part this was because the worldwide community of programmers and software engineers that developed Tor were constantly upgrading it. Cracking Tor security is like firing at a moving target and one that constantly changes shape and is quite resistant to damage. Tor is not perfect but it has proved very resistant to attack. A lot of people are trying to crack Tor, which is also used by criminals and Islamic terrorists was well as people trying to avoid government surveillance. This is a matter of life and death in many countries, including Russia.
Similar to other anonymizer software, Tor was even more untraceable. Unlike earlier anonymizer software, Tor relies on thousands of people running the Tor software, and acting as nodes for email (and attachments) to be sent through so many Tor nodes that it was believed virtually impossible to track down the identity of the sender. Tor was developed as part of an American government program to create software that people living in dictatorships could use to avoid arrest for saying things on the Internet that their government did not like. Tor also enabled Internet users in dictatorships to communicate safely with the outside world. Tor first appeared in 2002 and has since then defied most attempts to defeat it. Tor’s developers were also quick to modify their software when a vulnerability was detected.
By 2014 it was believed that NSA had cracked Tor and others may have done so as well, but were keeping quiet about it so that the Tor support community did not fix whatever aspect of the software made it vulnerable. At the same time there were alternatives to Tor, as well as supplemental software that were apparently uncracked by anyone.
Russia may have been encouraged by an Iranian effort in 2011 that came up with a way to detect Tor users and cut them off from the Internet. For the Iranian censors, that was good enough. This was a blow to American efforts to support the hacker community in keeping the Internet accessible for all users in countries like Iran, Cuba and North Korea. In Iran the government managed to shut down over 90 percent of Iranian user accounts using Tor. But the Tor developers quickly issued a software update that got around the government detection system. Since Iran had developed the detection software internally, rather than buying them from Western suppliers, and kept modifying it to regain the ability to detect Tor. But the Tor developers have been able to respond each time, including another round in this battle in 2014. The Russians appear to believe they could help the Iranian effort with a prize completion.
The U.S. government, despite a long, combative and acrimonious relationship with the hacker and Internet freedom communities, has been funding work on “Internet freedoms programs” that seek to bypass Internet censorship in dictatorships. The American government provided over $30 million dollars for hackers seeking to create software that will enable people to evade Internet surveillance and censorship.
While this anti-censorship software can also be used by criminals, terrorists and spies, the U.S. government believes that these groups already have access to software that can hide them, and that it's more important that police states have more reason to pay attention to what their citizens want.
Meanwhile, the American money has funded development of software that makes smart phones safer for users who want to say things to others that their governments disapprove of. All this activity is directed at countries with heavy Internet censorship programs, like China, Burma, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and several African countries. Russia responded by placing more restrictions on Russian Internet users and outlawing a lot of anti-government activity.
Some dictatorships have created virtually impregnable Internet controls. This is the case in Cuba and North Korea, where the local Internet is cut off from the global Internet. In effect, the Cuban and North Korean Internet are each restricted to one country, and heavily monitored by the security services. Iran considered that, but decided not to implement an "Iranian Islamic Internet" because the Iranian economy, fueled by huge oil income, has too many useful external contacts. Cutting Iran off from the worldwide web would hurt the economy and cause more unrest.
But the clerical dictatorship that runs Iran has managed to recruit some good software development and Internet talent, and, like China, is using a combination of imported technology (including Chinese censoring systems) and locally developed stuff to keep most anti-government individuals off the Internet. In 2022 the Russians were not prepared for the large number of Russians, many of them tech-savvy, to freely access with global Internet.