It seems that Russian authorities are finally having a go at implementing their VPN ban.
They formally passed a law banning VPNs in the middle of last year, with President Vladimir Putin signing it into law\ in July of that year. The ban supposedly came into effect last November, but as we reported earlier this year, it has had no noticeable effect so far.
In fact, VPN use in Russia has been on the rise of late with some providers reporting increases of up to 1000% in the number of Russian’s signing up for their service. This spike has been largely due to the Russian regimes bungled efforts to try and block the encrypted messenger service Telegram.
In doing so, they managed to take thousands of innocent websites offline and Russian internet users, frustrated at the persistent internet censorship of the regime running their country, have turned to VPNs in their droves to get around this.
Bill proposed fines for VPN use in Russia
But it seems that the Putin regime is still not satisfied with the chaos they have caused, and legislators in the State Duma (the Russian Parliament) have now passed new laws which give the Roscomnadzor (the Russian internet regulator) the power to fine VPN users.
The new bill [in Russian] states that individual VPN users can be fined up to 5,000 rubles ($80), while Government officials will face fines of up to 50,000 rubles ($800). Any business or legal entity caught using a VPN can be fined as much as 700,000 rubles ($11,230).
The same bill also requires that all search engines must remove any results or links which are related to VPNs. Any individual or company which is found to be sharing links to any content which is related to VPNs will be deemed to be acting criminally and can expect to face a hefty fine too.
The bill still has to pass through the Russian parliamentary system, but the nature of ‘Russian democracy’ means that this is a foregone conclusion.
The new bill’s many flaws
The wording of the new bill is extremely vague, probably deliberately so. It seems likely that this site will soon be ‘persona non grata’ on the Russian internet and any other tech sites which makes mention of VPNs could also face problems too.
The bill also seems to open up the possibility that Google and other search engines could find themselves blocked in Russia if, as would be expected, they refuse to comply with this new law.
One thing which is not made clear in the bill is how these new laws would be enforced. Last year’s VPN ban all appeared solid on paper, but the reality is that little has changed. Equally, the ban on Telegram went through all the proper bureaucratic hoops, but Telegram still remains available in Russia.
The bill, therefore, reads more like wishful thinking from the country’s autocratic regime than a genuine threat to Russian VPN users.
World Cup football fans advised to use VPNs in Russia
It is also somewhat ironic that the bill was made public at the same time as visitors to Russia for the forthcoming FIFA World Cup 2018 were being advised to use a VPN while in the country.
Their research shows that one in five of these public Wi-Fi spots was using no security whatsoever. This means that anyone connecting to them is exposing all of their online activity and data to hackers and anyone else who might care to look.
The worst offenders were in the west of the country. In St Petersburg, 37% of Wi-Fi spots tested were found to be insecure, while in Kaliningrad the figure was 35%.
Of those connections that did employ encryption, the majority were using WPA2 (62% of the total tested) As Kaspersky Lab themselves have pointed out, shouldn’t be considered secure if the password is visible to everyone.
They have therefore given some great tips for visitors to Russia during the World Cup who might be planning to use public Wi-Fi hotspots. Firstly, don’t do any secure activities, such as online banking when using these connections. Secondly, always disconnect from the Wi-Fi when you are not using it.
But thirdly and most importantly, they strongly recommend using a VPN at all times while connecting to public Wi-Fi. A VPN will encrypt all of your online activity properly and mean that you can do online banking or anything else safely and with confidence, no matter how insecure your Wi-Fi connection is.