Citizens in authoritarian regimes around the world have managed to evade internet control in an attempt to obtain uncensored information.

The Russians use virtual private networks for circumvent repression on the Internet after the invasion of Ukraine. In North Korea, some consumers can bypass government restrictions on smartphones. This is part of the growing struggle between many governments and their citizens to control information flowing over the Internet.

“Mobile users will need to use the same techniques as desktop users, but they should always be aware of the added layer of certain applications that secretly detect and report their user behavior.” Jonathan Tubner from Filter Media, which uses AI to understand how information is spread around the world, told Digital Trends in an interview. “There are some solutions here. For Android, some phones can be deleted and alternative operating systems installed, which can help avoid other forms of application censorship.

Closing the information curtains

Youssef Sarhan / Digital Trends Graphic / Unsplash

Russia is trying to maintain tight control over the flow of information about the war in Ukraine. Tübner said the government maintains a centralized block list that is expected to be imposed by ISPs. Authorities also require ISPs to install hardware devices to monitor users’ metadata and perform in-depth packet checks.

“While these methods can usually filter content running on unsecured channels, it’s probably not able to control Efficient use of VPN “, added Teubner. “For this reason, Russia has made it illegal to use VPNs to circumvent this. As it is difficult (if not impossible) to distinguish between VPNs used for legal and illegal purposes, this approach is difficult to implement. “

In North Korea, consumers are finding new ways to circumvent smartphone controls, the non-governmental group Lumen said. recent report. “The scale of the hacking still seems insignificant, but recent changes in North Korean law show that national authorities see it as a serious problem,” the report said.

Lumen said North Koreans who worked in China had figured out how to hack smartphones. Experienced mobile phone owners have learned to delete screenshots taken with Trace Viewer, an application in every North Korean smartphone that takes random screenshots to deter illegal use.

Many of the same internet controls exist in China as in Russia. However, Chinese censorship is much more complex and at the same time a little less centralized, Tubner said. Internet service providers in China agree to maintain and enforce the rules locally.

“However, more sophisticated traffic monitoring and verification techniques can be used in China,” Tübner said. “Common technologies such as SSL and VPN can hide some aspects of traffic from censorship, although China has some ways around this. The conclusion in China is that VPNs and mirror sites are the most effective ways to avoid censorship.

Bypassing barriers

A North Korean student holds a mobile phone.
In a photo taken on September 11, 2019, a North Korean student holds a mobile phone while standing in Lake Jeonji, or “Heavenly Lake”, in the crater of Mount Paektu, near Samjion. Ed Jones / AFP / Getty Images

People in war-torn areas, where network controls and disruptions abound, have several tools at their disposal, Chris Pearson, said in an interview the CEO of cybersecurity company BlackCloak. He pointed out that satellite internet connection is an option for companies such as Starlink, which create high bandwidth and easy to set up full-featured networks. Pearson said it doesn’t take a lot of technical knowledge or expensive hardware to avoid Internet control.

“[With] DNS [Domain name System] with HTTPS (ie secure web browsing sessions) built into all browsers, users have more tools at their fingertips than ever before, ”Pearson added. “Even normal controls like the TOR browser are much more effective and common these days.”

Pearson said using VPNs on personal devices can effectively cover up your internet traffic. But in strictly controlled modes, it is possible to identify who is using such technology and target the user. “When countries control the entire network, it is possible to hide what you are doing, but this may leave you open to identification, as your encrypted traffic will stand out,” he added.

Zaven Nahapetyan, co-founder of software firm Niche and former CEO of Facebook, an expert on Internet and Internet censorship, told Digital Trends in an interview that people in Ukraine use VPNs to evade control. VPN allows you to surf the Internet on a computer in different parts of the world where information controls do not exist.

“The problem with VPNs is that whatever company works, it sees all your internet traffic, so you have to believe that they are legal and don’t spy on your business,” Nahapetyan said. “There are many VPN providers, and good ones often cost a small monthly fee.”

Avoiding internet control in North Korea is a difficult and generally illegal task, Marco Belin, CEO of cybersecurity firm Datacappy, said in an interview. Private communication requires a mobile device manufactured outside the country and Internet connections outside North Korea’s “private internet”. Some universities and foreign hotels offer this access, he said.

“However, access to the ‘global internet’ is also being closely monitored,” Belin added. “China offers the most access, Russia also offers access, and although this access is still closely monitored, the user can use a VPN to encrypt the data that is exchanged on one of these networks. If North Koreans have the means to use any kind of foreign satellite access, using encrypted satellite communication with an untraceable device is one of the ways North Koreans have access to the global Internet.

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