Today’s bottom line for anonymizing privacy services is that they must comply with Russia’s site-blocking demands and open up themselves up to scrutiny. Since the alternative is to break the law and face the consequences, many providers have pulled out of Russia completely.
In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, telecoms watchdog Rozkomnadzor stepped up its campaign against search engines. Demands to delist hundreds of thousands of VPN-related URLs from search results run alongside questionable requests to remove other content.
Despite renewed crackdowns on VPNs and Tor, it seems likely that Russia understands that short of blocking everything, blocking every VPN service and thousands of apps that constantly surface is impossible. As such, other methods are being explored.
Anti-VPN Scare Campaign
Public Service Announcements (PSA) have been deployed to nudge citizens in the right direction on genuine issues of public welfare for decades. They’re also used to direct behavior in a way that benefits governments and corporations while making it appear that the interests of citizens are paramount.
Currently being spread via social media, the general premise of Russia’s anti-VPN campaign is that since no VPN service can be trusted with users’ private data, using a VPN is worse for privacy than not using a VPN at all.
The campaign is the work of ROCIT, which describes itself as a “public organization that unites active Internet users in Russia.” Funded by the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media (Minkomsvyaz), ROCIT issues advice on piracy, net neutrality and other internet-related issues, in line with government policy.
PSA 1: ‘Your Data Can Be Leaked Online Due to VPN’
ROCIT advice: “VPN services accumulate a huge amount of personal data, including information about bank cards and personal documents of the user. Subsequently, all this can be transferred to intruders and scammers, including fraudulent call centers..”
In the video: The customer is asked whether she will be paying by cash or card. When choosing card, the barman begins reciting details of the card (account number, expiry date, CVV number) before she hands it over – apparently because the customer previously used a VPN.
PSA 2: “There is a price to pay for data security. Sometimes too expensive. In the pursuit of viewing content on banned social networks, think about it, but is it worth it?”
In the video: The customer requests the bill. The waiter addresses the customer with his full name and requests an extortionate amount. The customer is surprised since all he bought was a single cup of coffee. The waiter explains that the amount also covers his wife not being informed that he’s having a secret affair.
PSA 3: “Checkout, a full basket of products, a store employee scans each product and tells you the amount of the purchase. And then the passport number, full name, age and address of registration. Yes, now the cashier can check not only products, but also any data about you.”
In the video: The customer asks if she needs to show her passport for identification. The cashier says it’s not necessary and then recites the customer’s full name, date and place of birth, and where she lives now.
PSA 4: “Leaked personal data that everyone already knows about? Thank you VPN service. Once again you did not let us down!”
In the video: A man opens the door and says that he’s here for an interview. He starts to say his name but the interviewer already knows it.
“Let’s list your qualities,” she says. “A fan of computer games and dubious websites. You haven’t paid your child support for two years. Most importantly…your dignity,” the interviewer adds, using her fingers to suggest she’s aware of the size of…something. The man says he thinks he should leave.
PSA 5: “Only the person to whom you entrusted your personal data knows this. Do you know who you entrusted them to?”
In the video: The couple are having their first date yet the man speaks as if he’s known the woman her entire life.
He knows the name of her former partner and says she spent the previous evening cuddling her cat ‘Tima’ while watching the movie Bridget Jones. Where did he get all of this information? She used a VPN.
Rozkomnadzor (and users) Comment on Videos
Commenting on its official Telegram channel on Saturday, telecoms watchdog Rozkomnadzor acknowledged the ROCIT campaign with the following statement.
“In social networks, videos with social advertising [PSAs] about the risks of using VPN services are discussed. According to the Communications Law, means of bypassing blocking of illegal content are recognized as a threat, as they create conditions for illegal activities,” Rozkomnadzor notes.
“VPN services can give users the wrong impression of their own anonymity on the Internet. However, foreign owners of such services have access to all information that Russian users transmit through them.”
Perhaps a more nuanced approach would be to help users understand that random free VPN apps downloaded from the internet are of greatest concern, but in a country where recognized VPN services have been forced to leave or have agreed to monitoring, few good choices remain. Rozcomnadzor’s messaging suggests that there are no good options.
Comments are mostly blocked on the videos but some did manage to get through.
“Maybe you should allow VPNs so that people choose proven, popular VPN services, and not look for those that have not yet been blocked? Or maybe unblock popular sites so people don’t really need to use VPN?” one commenter wrote.
Another was less than impressed by the video featuring the blackmailing waiter.
“What a stinky bastard you are. Why the hell would a random waiter know data from a VPN? Does he work as a hacker or VPN server operator in the evenings? Just taking people for idiots.”