Although authorities in Europe have taken a stand on data privacy which comes down firmly on the side of the consumer, internet users in other parts of the world haven’t been so lucky. This has sparked a renewed interest in Virtual Private Network or VPN services and applications, as a hedge against government surveillance, targeted advertising, and the attention of snoops and hackers.
But even this avenue of privacy defense is becoming narrower, with the imposition of government-backed restrictions on the use of VPN services now being enforced in several countries. China and now Russia have been leading the way in what’s becoming an increasingly difficult landscape for private citizens and corporate institutions alike to navigate with the secure data encryption and privacy assurances that a VPN can provide.
VPN Restrictions in China: Oversight, To Restriction
Efforts to “regulate” the flow of information and free speech over the internet have been in effect for over two decades, since the foundations for the “Great Firewall of China” were first laid. Since that time, considerable amounts of money and technical resources have been invested in laying the infrastructure and procedural frameworks required to deal with evolving digital technologies, changing political climates, and the emergence of new advocacy, opposition and free speech groups.
With the growth in popularity and effectiveness of VPN apps and services, the attentions of the state have turned to matters of both technological intervention and legal enforcement. On the technical side, the Chinese government has been increasing the pressure on VPN providers by (in the words of Romania-based service CyberGhost CEO Robert Knapp), “blocking our IPs, blocking the server infrastructure we were using, [and] detecting traffic from certain sources.”
Earlier this year, a law was passed putting a formal framework to a policy statement previously issued by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), to the effect that that all special cable and local VPN services operating within the country should be required to seek and obtain government approval, before commencing or continuing their operations.
The law effectively requires all developers offering Virtual Private Networks to obtain a license from the Chinese government. And state intervention into digital privacy doesn’t stop there.
In China’s western Xinjiang region, there are reports indicating that the government is obliging citizens to install spyware on their smartphones – with random spot checks in the street, to check for compliance. The moves are supposedly for anti-terrorism purposes, but there have already been instances where citizens were arrested over conversations held in private chatrooms.
VPN Restrictions – Private Sector Compliance
In compliance with the Chinese laws, Apple has removed most of the major VPN apps from its iOS App Store in China – much to the dismay of the providers. In a similar move, the company running Amazon’s cloud services in China has announced that it will no longer support VPN use.
The majority of hotels around China that offer VPN services to their foreign visitors are also withdrawing these facilities.
VPN Restrictions in Russia: Old Habits, New Lead
In 2016, Russia’s Yaroyava Law (the “Big Brother Law” cited by whistle-blower Edward Snowden) required Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and telecommunications services operating in Russia to retain a minimum of six months of metadata on their subscribers. Possibly taking a leaf out of China’s book, the government in Russia has recently made decisive moves to draw down the use of VPN applications and services within the country, as well.
In a law approved by the Russian Parliament or Duma in July 2017, President Vladimir Putin has signed a bill prohibiting “Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and other technologies that anonymize users.” Due to come into effect on November 1st, the new law will be enforced by the state security agency FSB (the successor to the KGB), and Russia’s Ministry of Interior.
The FSB will be charged with identifying the owners of VPN services and anonymizers – and asking these owners to implement Russia’s prescribed internet censorship blacklists for their users. State-run media claim that these blacklists are aimed at prohibiting access to “unlawful content” – which officially includes sites containing materials advocating drug abuse, suicide and child pornography, but has since been extended to include any material advocating “extremist” content. This is a blanket term which could be used to prohibit just about anything the Russian government disapproves of.
No Safe Haven?
It’s not all bad news – necessarily. Internet users in the European Union (EU) can expect to enjoy the protection of a comprehensive set of data privacy laws applying to all transactions which involve EU residents – even if those transactions take place in participating countries outside Europe.
Strict and/or clearly defined rules are in place governing access to digital information in both the UK and USA. And a degree of protection (depending on the professionalism and data governance of the VPN providers concerned) is available to internet users in Australia – despite the data retention laws which have recently come into effect there.
For those in Russia and China looking for a way around the legislation, there are some options available too.
Users of Android devices may gain access to VPN software via third-party app stores (Google doesn’t even operate a Play Store in China). Rather than jail-breaking their devices, iOS users can download VPN apps in countries outside Russia or China, then use those pre-installed apps at their destination (this also applies to Android and other platforms).
The FinjanMobile InvinciBull™ VPN Browser also fixes many of the VPN loopholes by allowing consumers the freedom of choice with their open VPN options. Customers can choose from over 20 geographic locations to enhance their security and help secure their data. Using InvinciBull™, consumers can enter the world with confidence that their mobile device and data is 100% protected.
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