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 | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown (1989); and worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, and as a stringer for the Economist. Frequent TV pundit: O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline & Reliable Sources. Bio, .

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  • kuanjur

    you r right that the proxy is too slow and not reliable , i travel a lot and i need 24/7 fast and secure internet connection , after read many blogs and talk with friends i decided to use https://www.vpnarea.com , it works perfect for me

  • goulo

    I recently read a good historical novel (Dek Tagoj de Kapitano Postnikov) which took place in Russia under the czar a little over a century ago, and part of the story involved the totalitarian government, secret police, arbitrary persecution, suppressive censorship, restrictions on organizing groups/clubs and publishing magazines, and so on. Sad to see it happening all over again in Russia.

  • Just_AC

    You definitely need right now NOT to be using Internet Explorer! Me, I’m a computer guy and have my computer (Still XP) firewalled, dual booting to linux mint and I use free Sandboxie (www.sandboxie.com) to isolate out my private Firefox surfing experience. Of course, I run a scanner of some sort everynight and have my system backed up in three different spots and hopefully know what to do if something sneaks by.

    Just_AC

    but I think I will try out the VPN and tor browser, too! I’ve just noticed massive slow downs when I’ve used a proxy server in the past

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Using a VPN will produce a hit on speed which may or may not be noticeable depending on which service you’re using and the locations of their servers, as well as whether their servers have sufficient bandwidth and capacity to handle the traffic. That’s why if you’re going to go VPN, it’s usually advisable to go with one of the major service providers.

    However, yes, use of VPN can be detected by ISPs and, increasingly, also by sites on the web, such as Hulu — which just recently enacted a measure to block a long blacklist of VPN IPs. Expect more services, especially premium ones such as HBO, Netflix, and Amazon, to do the same. As for the ISPs, it’ll probably be hit or miss on whether they opt to throttle.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Regarding VPN services: It’s important to be careful to pick a good one, because some of them have reportedly been compromised by the very governments they claim to be protecting users from.

    For example, a few years ago one of the services, ‘Hide My Ass’ (aka HMA), was instrumental in the conviction of a Phoenix man who illegally attempted to hack the Sony Pictures website. Now while I absolutely don’t condone illegal activities, it’s worth noting that HMA — a UK-based company — obeyed an order from the U.S. courts to turn over activities logs, which led to identifying the culprit and secured the conviction.

    What I’m saying is that any of these services and their guarantee of privacy is going to be something of a chimera, an illusion, if in fact they have the means to collect and, upon being compelled by a government, release your information.

    And then there’s this:
    http://www.techspot.com/news/56547-hulu-reportedly-blocking-vpn-services-from-accessing-its-content.html

    Hulu is reportedly blocking access for VPN users, based on a huge blacklist of VPN IPs. Supposedly there’s a workaround where a dedicated IP will get through, but expect this to be a game of leapfrog, not just for Hulu, but all of the other sites which want to limit their services to certain geographic areas.

    And it wouldn’t surprise me at all if governments, like that in Russia, simply banned VPN and/or blocked all VPN-identifed IPs.

  • Bose

    The Russian definitions sound scarily broad. So many businesses and orgs use WordPress and other blogging/social media platforms to run their business sites. Much of their content is static, but with blogging features used for deeper product info and gathering feedback via comments. So, you’re running a carpet & flooring retailer, putting up specials and new products weekly and getting 3K visits? Sure sounds like you’re on the hook to register.

    Or, your site gets a couple hundred visits a day, but a couple pages go viral. The registration is now centralized tracking of any site garnering moderate attention.

    Some traffic statistics gathering methods skew results to look better. Some count junk/bot traffic the same as apparently personal. Junk/bot traffic can spike totally out of the site owner’s control. A DDOS attack, by definition, spikes (distorts) traffic numbers… so many paths to junky numbers that’s it’s much harder to narrow them down to something accurate.

  • Indigo

    Thanks for that information. You’ve persuaded me to stay with un-tampered Firefox and have Neapolitan.

  • Indigo

    Agreed. Internet, la città aperta is no more.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Depends on the VPN, but interestingly mine doesn’t have an issues in DC. But when I use it at my parents’ in Chicasgo, I notice it going slow etc.

  • jomicur

    I think anyone would be nuts to assume that surfing the web in any way at all is safe and private. If our government can hack Angela Merkel’s email, it’s a cinch they can hack mine. And not long ago the Guardian ran a story about an online child porn ring that got busted–even though it was using Tor. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/18/fourteen-arrested-operating-child-porn-site-tor

    I hasten to add that I have no interest whatever in kiddie porn, drugs or any of the other uses for Tor and similar browsers. But out of curiosity I installed Tor on my machine last fall to see what it would do and how it would work. It instantly slowed down my browsing to the pace of a crippled snail. Even commonly accessed sites like the NYT, Guardian and this blog ran like almost-dry cement. That was enough to convince me that nothing I could possibly want to do online could be worth that kind of inconvenience, and I uninstalled Tor after only a couple hours of playing with it. And I found that it had sabotaged Firefox. Web pages weren’t displaying properly, and everything ran much more slowly than usual (though nowhere near as slowly as with Tor). I had to uninstall Firefox and reinstall it, which involved losing all my cookies, bookmarks, etc. If that’s “safety,” I’ll take pistachio.

  • Drew2u

    Which raises an interesting point about the internet, speech, assembly, and press in the united states.
    If we’re getting tiered internet access and speeds, then certainly “startup blogs” would be extremely hit by that mode of information transference, especially if chat rooms are (should?) be considered assembly spaces along with the comment sections of places like Americablog.

    If we really want the young’uns to get out the vote, then saying their first-amendment rights are being controlled by large companies and their vine/tumblr/etsy accounts are in danger would be a step in that direction.

  • Indigo

    So . . . blogging in Ye Oldie Soviet Union is a mainstream media event now. That’s a backhanded compliment, an acknowledgement of real power, and a major step into the mainstream for all Bloggianity.

  • Drew2u

    I’ve heard of ISPs detecting the use of VPNs and throttling the speed of surfing the internet. Is this a truism or does using a VPN generally slow the overall speed?
    Edit: I also had my OkCupid account suspended last fall because I was using a proxy plugin for Firefox that was supposed to help with safe surfing; so there’s that.

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