The landscape of the conflict borne from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to change on a daily basis. As Ukrainian military forces and citizens fight and flee from Russian forces, world governments and major corporations responded with financial repercussions: sanctions, shutting down services, freezing assets and pulling business from the region. The Russian economy is cratering as a result. The Moscow Stock Exchange remains closed for the third straight week and Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted publicly that unemployment and inflation are likely to rise despite his claim that the “economic blitzkrieg” by Western nations was a failure.
Questions remain about how much these measures will actually affect Putin and the web of billionaire oligarchs who live at the front of foreign thought on Russia, but there is little doubt about their effect on Russian citizens, many of whom oppose the war in Ukraine. Thousands of Russians protested the invasion in cities across the country, Russians living abroad spoke out against Putin and social media platforms empowered both communities’ messages to spread.
These actions sparked a reaction from the Kremlin to control the market of information. New laws with stricter punishments for protestors and people using “war” to describe the war in Ukraine were passed. Access to non-Russian state news coverage of the conflict was severely limited. Then the hammer came down: Russia limited access to Twitter and banned Facebook and Instagram in recent weeks.
According to Motherboard, what is being labeled the “Digital Iron Curtain” is a suspected effort to centralize Russian social media users to platforms that can be more easily monitored by the Russian government. The key services that remain fully operational in the nation are WhatsApp, Telegram and VK. Of those, two offer end-to-end encrypted messaging that provide some protection against government surveillance, while VK is outright owned and operated by the Russian state. “You can assume that anything that happens on VK is absolutely not safe from the Kremlin,” Eva Galperin, EFF cybersecurity director, said.
But the protections offered by WhatsApp and Telegram aren’t foolproof. Banning WhatsApp remains on the table due to attempts by the Russian government to designate its parent company, Meta, as an extremist organization. That decision and the bans on Facebook and Instagram came after Meta relaxed guidelines on the platforms to allow users to call for violence against Russian soldiers. WhatsApp remains operational now, but the platform is making sure that users in Russia and Ukraine know how to protect their communications. In a series of tweets, WhatsApp encouraged users in the region to enable two-factor authentication and fingerprint lock while promoting tools like Disappearing Mode and View Once as ways to protect sensitive messages and images sent via the app.
Telegram offers similar encryption tools, but doesn’t turn them on by default. Users must opt-in to “secret chats,” though that option only works for one-on-one communications. Group chats on Telegram have no end-to-end encryption tools available, leaving them exposed to potential surveillance. There is also some doubt about whether Telegram founder Pavel Durov agreed to share user data as part of Russia’s decision to lift its ban on Telegram in 2020. “[Durov] has also said that Telegram has never handed over any data to the Russian government, but there is no way of knowing if that is true,” Galperin told Motherboard. “Because most Telegram comms are not encrypted, he sure is sitting on a lot of data that governments could ask for.”
Despite these efforts, Russian citizens have found ways around the cyber blockade. As the conflict got underway in February, users utilized Google Maps, TripAdvisor and restaurant review sites such as Afisha.ru to distribute anti-war messages, pictures of captured Russian soldiers and images of the conflict in Ukraine. Google temporarily suspended Google Maps reviews for locations in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as hacker collective Anonymous encouraged the practice. TripAdvisor made a similar decision, pushing users to its community forums to discuss the war.
VPNs have also become widely used services by Russians to get around the social media blocks. According to VPN data monitoring firm Top10VPN, recent demand for VPNs in Russia peaked at 2,692% on March 14, the same day the Instagram ban went into effect. The number has dropped to 1,055% as of March 17, but demand hasn’t dipped below 1,000% since Facebook was banned on March 4.
An Interfax report confirmed that Russian officials were steadily banning VPN service in the nation, with Alexander Khinshtein, chairman of the State Duma Information Policy Committee, noting that about 20 popular VPNs were already blocked. That number is likely to grow, but internet access itself in Russia is under further threat. According to leaked communications, the nation is expected to implement restrictions this week that could be the first step in cutting off Russia from the rest of the internet.
Planned relocations of Russian government websites to national networks by Friday signal that implementation of the nation’s sovereign internet project, RuNet, could be ramping up, effectively making non-Russian websites inaccessible. “Disconnection has been possible for three or four years, but applying it is another matter,” Stanislav Sharikov of Russian digital rights NGO Roskomsvoboda told El Pais. “Without large disturbances or massive protests, disconnecting the internet wouldn’t make sense, though the option is on the table if the protests get stronger and the internet contributes to them.”
The creation of Russia’s own TLS certificate authority could also expose web traffic to increased interception by government agencies when used by browsers that don’t recognize the CA as trustworthy. Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Safari and Microsoft Edge currently don’t give the Russian CA secure recognition, meaning anyone using it on those browsers are at much higher risk of their web activity being collected by Russian officials.
Russian citizens have shown tenacity in their attempts to circumvent the Kremlin’s continued crackdowns on the flow of information, but it is getting harder. Especially if Russia cuts itself off from the internet entirely. But organizations including the Internet Protection Society and Roskomsvoboda continue to make resources available to those looking for legal tools to pierce the digital curtain. “Without going into technical details, a classic VPN is very easy to identify and block, but there are other tools that have demonstrated their efficacy in China, Iran, Belarus and other countries,” Sharikov said. “If they shut down the internet, not everyone will be able to connect to the outside, but people who have some technical knowledge will.”