Russia’s Instagram and Facebook bans are just one step in building a ‘digital iron curtain’ amid conflict in Ukraine

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The landscape of the conflict born out of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to change daily. As Ukrainian military forces and citizens fight and flee Russian forces, world governments and big business have responded with financial repercussions: sanctions, shutting down services, freezing assets, and pulling businesses out of the region. The Russian economy is collapsing as a result. The Moscow Stock Exchange remains closed for the third consecutive week and Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly admitted that unemployment and inflation are likely to rise despite his claim that Western nations’ “economic blitzkrieg” was a failure.

Questions remain about the real impact of these measures on Putin and the network of billionaire oligarchs who live at the forefront of foreign thinking on Russia, but there is no doubt about their effect on citizens. Russians, 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 allowed messages from both communities to spread.

These actions triggered a reaction from the Kremlin to control the information market. New laws with tougher penalties for protesters and people using “war” to describe the war in Ukraine have been passed. Access to non-Russian media coverage of the conflict was severely limited. Then the hammer fell: Russia has restricted access to Twitter and banned Facebook and Instagram in recent weeks.

According to Motherboard, what’s being dubbed the “digital iron curtain” is an alleged effort to centralize Russian social media users on platforms that can be more easily monitored by the Russian government. Key services that remain fully operational in the country are WhatsApp, Telegram and VK. Of these, two offer end-to-end encrypted messaging that offers some protection against government surveillance, while VK is owned and operated by the Russian state. “You can assume that not everything that happens on VK is safe from the Kremlin at all,” said Eva Galperin, EFF’s director of cybersecurity.

But the protections offered by WhatsApp and Telegram are not infallible. The WhatsApp ban remains on the table due to attempts by the Russian government to designate its parent company, Meta, as an extremist organization. The move 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 ensures that users in Russia and Ukraine know how to protect their communications. In one series of tweetsWhatsApp encouraged users in the region to enable two-factor authentication and fingerprint locking while promoting tools such as Disappearing Mode and View Once as ways to protect sensitive messages and images sent through WhatsApp. application.

Telegram offers similar encryption tools, but does not enable them by default. Users must subscribe to “secret chats”, although this option only works for one-to-one communications. Group chats on Telegram do not have any end-to-end encryption tools, which exposes them to potential surveillance. There is also some doubt as to 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] also said that Telegram never passed any data to the Russian government, but there’s no way to know if that’s true,” Galperin told Motherboard. “Because most Telegram communications are unencrypted, it is sure to be sitting on a lot of data that governments might request.”

Despite these efforts, Russian citizens have found ways to circumvent the cyber blockade. At the start of the conflict in February, users used Google Maps, TripAdvisor and restaurant review sites such as Afisha.ru to post anti-war messages, photos of captured Russian soldiers and images of the conflict in Ukraine. Google has temporarily suspended Google Maps ratings for locations in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus after hacker collective Anonymous encouraged the practice. TripAdvisor made a similar move, pushing users to its community forums to discuss the war.

VPNs have also become widely used services by Russians to circumvent social media blocks. According to VPN data monitoring firm Top10VPN, recent VPN demand in Russia peaked at 2,692% on March 14, the same day the Instagram ban went into effect. The number fell to 1,055% as of March 17, but demand hasn’t fallen below 1,000% since Facebook was banned on March 4.

An Interfax report confirmed that Russian officials routinely ban VPN service in the country, with Alexander Khinshtein, chairman of the State Duma’s Information Policy Committee, noting that about 20 popular VPNs were already blocked . This number is likely to increase, but Internet access itself in Russia is even more at risk. According to leaked communications, the nation is expected to put restrictions in place this week that could be the first step in cutting Russia off from the rest of the internet.

Planned relocations of Russian government websites to national networks by Friday indicate that the implementation of the country’s sovereign internet project, RuNet, could accelerate, rendering non-Russian websites inaccessible. “Disconnection has been possible for three or four years, but enforcing it is another matter,” Stanislav Sharikov of Russian digital rights NGO Roskomsvoboda told El Pais. “Without major disruptions or massive protests, disconnecting the internet would make no sense, although the option is on the table if the protests grow stronger and the internet contributes to it.”

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 do not recognize the certificate authority as trustworthy. Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Safari, and Microsoft Edge currently do not grant secure recognition to the Russian Certificate Authority, which means anyone using it on these browsers is at a much higher risk of having their web activity collected. by Russian authorities.

Russian citizens have been tenacious in their attempts to circumvent the Kremlin’s continued crackdown on the flow of information, but it is becoming increasingly difficult. Especially if Russia completely cuts itself off from the Internet. But organizations like the Internet Protection Society and Roskomsvoboda continue to make resources available to those looking for legal tools to break through 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 proven their effectiveness in China, Iran, Belarus and other countries,” said Sharikov. “If they cut the internet, not everyone will be able to connect outside, but people who have technical knowledge will be able to.”

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