Russian officials spent $8 million on VPNs which let them dodge country's online censorship - analysis

Business Insider US
A man holds up an anti-Putin placard at a political rally in Hungary, March 2022.
  • Russian agencies have spent $8 million on VPN technology, analysis by digital rights group Top10VPN found.
  • VPNs are commonly used to bypass online censorship systems and content geo-blocks.
  • The research shows Russian state officials are having to bypass their own censorship.
  • For more stories visit Business Insider.

Russian officials are shelling out the equivalent of millions of dollars to buy tools that let them circumvent their own censorship apparatus.

Russia's Federal Treasury has published 236 official contracts for VPN technology totalling almost $10 million, an analysis by digital rights and privacy group Top10VPN found.

This included contracts from Russian government agencies as well as private companies — although the vast majority of spending came from government agencies.

Top10VPN researcher Katherine Barnett told Insider that government agencies spent $8 million.

One contract, for the Russian Interior Ministry department for the Krasnoyarsk territory, is for "the provision of power services for the provision of data transfer channels and access points to the Internet" and worth $1.8 million.

VPNs (virtual private networks) allow users to mask their activity online as well as letting them circumvent censorship systems in whatever country they're in by disguising their IP address.

Demand for VPNs surged in Russia in March following the country's invasion of Ukraine, as it began to block mainstream Western platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Western news outlets

In research shared with Insider earlier this month, Top10VPN found the Russian state is blocking sites on even the most fringe parts of the internet as part of its efforts to censor messaging about Ukraine.

A Kremlin spokesperson admitted in April he uses a VPN, saying: "Why not, it's not banned."

"As the Kremlin continues to block hundreds of websites to try and control the narrative surrounding the invasion of Ukraine, officials are likely to become increasingly reliant on VPNs to retain access to vital information from abroad," Top10VPN digital rights researcher Samuel Woodhams, one of the report's authors, told Insider.

"Given how extensive the content restrictions now are, it's unsurprising that officials, like citizens, are trying to circumvent the restrictions. VPN technology also plays a crucial role in enabling secure remote working and generally improving operational security," Woodhams added.

Woodhams said although state officials are spending millions on VPNs, there are reports that Russia is seeking to disrupt VPN access.

"Attempts to disrupt VPNs would not only prevent citizens from accessing censored content, it would also disrupt legitimate businesses and official government departments from retaining access to key information sources," Woodhams said.

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