Safe Surf: As Russia cracks down on bloggers, a primer on how to surf more safely

As part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on dissent, and overall consolidation of power, including increasing restraints on the media, the Russian parliament passed legislation forcing bloggers to register with the government.

The law is seen as a way for Putin to stifle dissent that doesn’t go through the traditional media, which the state controls (for the most part) in Russia.

The law, which is heading to Putin’s desk for his signature, will require Russian bloggers – defined as anyone who gets more than 3,000 visits per day, in other words, anyone with any power – to register with the government and abide by regulations governing the mass media.

This means the government now has another way to arrest bloggers, for not abiding by the media regulations. It also means that no one with any power can blog anonymously, or they’d be breaking the law, again permitting them to be arrested (if you can find them).

Privacy via Shutterstock

Privacy via Shutterstock

Just to give you a sense of where Putin is coming from, as Reuters notes, Putin has called the Internet “a CIA project.” And keep in mind that over the last year, it was the Internet, led by bloggers (mostly foreign), who caused Putin serious pain over the gay issue leading up to the Sochi Olympics. Fortunately, Putin’s laws have no control over foreign blogs or foreign activists.

As I’ve noted before, autocrats like Putin have never had to deal with the kind of dissent and fierce pushback that’s possible online in the free world.  And while he can try to rein it in at home, he can’t rein it in abroad.  There needs to be a consistent effort by Russian expats, abroad, to blog in Russian about what is happening in their home country.

How do you surf more safely?

I recently met with the kind folks at the Center for Democratic and Technology, an Internet privacy and freedom group, to get more advice on how to more safely navigate the Web.  As you can imagine, and as I’ve found in the past, it’s not terribly easy to protect your privacy online.  But, it is something you should try, especially if you’re in countries like Russia.  But obviously it has benefits for those of us in nicer countries as well.

Caveat: Even if you follow all the tips out there, don’t assume that you’re ever safe.  For example, if someone is able to infect your computer with a virus that tracks your keystrokes, or the computer you’re contacting, it doesn’t matter if you have encryption, they can still see what you’re doing.

Having said that, here are a few things to consider:

1. Use a VPN, or virtual private network

Basically, a VPN creates an encrypted Internet tunnel between your computer and some company out there in the great Internet ether.

What that means is that while your local Internet company, your ISP (in my case, Comcast), would see that something left my computer and went to the VPN company, that “something” would be encrypted, so the content of what I sent, what the email said, what Web site I was visiting, what I said in an online chat while using my VPN, would hopefully be protected information.

Now, that doesn’t mean some really good spy service couldn’t perhaps break the encryption, and it also doesn’t mean that the VPN company itself couldn’t be subpoenaed, coerced, raided in order to find out what I was really doing.  But it’s much better than nothing.

In safer countries, where you won’t go to jail for writing a blog entry critical of the president, a VPN is nice when you’re surfing at a coffee shop, or an airport, or a hotel, and you don’t want your communications, let alone your passwords, going via some untrusted wifi connection.  VPN’s are also useful for convincing services like HBO Go or Netflix or Amazon Prime that you’re “really” in the US, so they don’t stop you from using your subscription when you’re traveling abroad.

I use this VPN, Private Internet Access, and if you buy their service through this link, we get a portion of the proceeds (I only agree to the deal after I used them and liked them.)  I like them a lot, found it easy to set up.  You can read my review here.

2. Use Tor

Tor is a Web browser that can hide what you are doing on the Web, what sites you’re visiting, and who you’re communicating with.  Some of this is way over my head.  And the description of how this works, over at the Tor Web site, is only marginally helpful for dumb people like me.

But in a nutshell, when you use Tor, and let’s say you want to visit AMERICAblog, the Tor browser would send your request to visit our site via many different nodes, or waypoints.  Each waypoint would only know the next waypoint you were heading to, rather than knowing all of them (there may be 6 waypoints in total, for example).  In this way, Tor makes it harder for people to figure out what you’re doing online.  The information is also encrypted.

Downsides to Tor: It can be slower, and it blocks Flash and Quicktime.

I did find a decent description of Tor from LifeHacker:

The Tor network disguises your identity by moving your traffic across different Tor servers, and encrypting that traffic so it isn’t traced back to you. Anyone who tries would see traffic coming from random nodes on the Tor network, rather than your computer….

If you want to be anonymous—say, if you live under a dictatorship, you’re a journalist in an oppressive country, or a hacker looking to stay hidden from the government—Tor is one of the easiest ways to anonymize your traffic, and it’s free. It’s far from perfect, though (we’ll get to that in a moment).P

On a more general level, Tor is useful for anyone who wants to keep their internet activities out of the hands of advertisers, ISPs, and web sites. That includes people getting around censorship restrictions in their country, police officers looking to hide their IP address, or anyone else who doesn’t want their browsing habits linked to them.

Tor’s technology isn’t just about browsing anonymously. It can also host web sites through its hidden services that are only accessible by other Tor users. It’s on one of these hidden service sites that something like The Silk Road exists to traffic drugs. Tor’s hosting capabilities tend to pop up in police reports for things like child pornography and arms trading, too.

My sense from privacy advocates is that Tor is one of the most important ways you can protect yourself.  They prefer it to simply using a VPN.  But, they warn, Tor only protects things you do via the Tor browser itself.  Meaning, surfing the Web via the Tor browser.  Or Facebook chat via the Tor brower, but not Facebook chat you do via some other instant messaging service like AOL or MSN or iChat.

Also, Tor seems to have the ability to let you host sites anonymously – in other words, if you’re a Russian blogger trying to hide from your government.  Again, I know nothing about this, but it’s worth investigating if you’re, say, a Russian blogger.

3. Use Adium for chat, at least on a Mac

I use Adium for chat, and it’s great.  Not only is it pretty easy to set up, but your chat is encrypted.  Even Facebook chat can be sent via Adium, and again, once it goes through Adium it’s encrypted if the other person you’re chatting with has their chat encrypted as well.

And of course, if you’re using a VPN, your chat and everything else going through your machine is encrypted.  Still, I got the sense from the privacy folks that they think Tor is safer than a VPN, since you pass through so many Tor nodes that no one really has all the info on what you’re doing online.

In conclusion

Unfortunately, this stuff is hard and confusing.  Someone should prepare a guide for idiots – and I mean idiots.  Have an expert write it, then have an idiot read through it, and make the expert rewrite every section that doesn’t make sense.  Even the “idiot’s guides” to Internet privacy I found online tend to be confusing as hell. And don’t even get me started on encrypting your email.  Good luck with that one.

But using a VPN, Tor and Adium (there are other services for PCs) is a good place to start.


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Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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