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How Russians are flocking to VPN apps as state censorship tightens

Source: iMore

What do you want to know

  • App downloads for VPN services in Russia have increased significantly in recent days.
  • Detector tower data provided to iMore reports that downloads of Russia’s top five VPN apps increased by almost 2,700% in the past week.
  • Several consumer VPN providers claim to have witnessed an increase in traffic and downloads, and citizens concerned about war and tightening censorship.

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues and escalates, hundreds of thousands of Russian iPhone users are turning to VPN software in the face of unprecedented censorship in the country, according to multiple providers. Consumer VPN and the Sensor Tower application data platform.

As Ukraine continues to offer relentless resistance in the face of Russian aggression, an information war is intensifying around the world as the country seeks to protect its citizens from Western media coverage and as companies seek to distance themselves from the conflict.

Today, major VPN providers confirm they have seen a surge in traffic and downloads from Russia, with customers citing specific concerns about war and access to information in the country since the start of the invasion.

Preliminary estimates of detection tower supplied to iMore report that the top five VPN apps on the App Store in Russia saw their total downloads increase by 2691% week-over-week from February 25 to March 3.

Russia Iphone VpnSource: iMore

The top five apps in Russia, which were downloaded a total of 43,000 times between Feb. 18 and Feb. 24, by contrast, were downloaded around 1.2 million times in the following week. The top five apps and their increased download performance were:

  • VPN Proxy Master – Super VPN (ALL connected) – 490,000 – +2622% of 18,000
  • VPN – Super Unlimited Proxy – (Moving Jump) – 292,000 – +2,555% of 11,000
  • VPN – Super Unlimited Proxy VPN – (VPN Proxy Secure Express) – 183,000 – +8218% of 2,200
  • Psiphon Pro – The Internet Freedom VPN – (Psiphon) – 118,000 – +2214% of 5,100
  • Turbo VPN – Secure VPN Proxy – (Innovative connection) – 95,000 – +1,362% of 6,500

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Russia Ipad VpnSource: iMore

Over the past few days, Russia has completely banned access to social media platforms Facebook and Twitter, and on Friday passed a law in the country criminalizing anyone who calls the conflict in Ukraine a war. The move led the BBC to suspend the work of all its journalists inside the country while it assessed the implications of the measure. Russia’s communications watchdog continues to block access to several media outlets, and the situation was further complicated on Friday when ISP Cogent Communications announced it was ending its services in Russia. Cogent carries 25% of all global Internet traffic.

Although less prominent in Russia, many of the best VPN providers for iPhone and iPad that you may be more familiar with are also seeing a surge in interest. Ukraine’s own ClearVPN, developed by MacPaw, claims that since February 24 it has received more than 100,000 installs, in part thanks to its one-year free subscription offer to all users and its decision to make the free application in Ukraine. MacPaw told us that it has seen its daily active users increase 15x, with around 5% of its new users coming from Russia or Belarus, it says the average daily active user count has quadrupled in those countries in the space of a week, although the company does not do any marketing in either. On March 1, MacPaw made the decision to remove ClearVPN from Russia and Belarus to prevent it from being used as a tool in the cyber war against Ukraine.

“We are seeing some trends that indicate growing interest in VPNs from Russia,” ExpressVPN VP Harold Li said. “Last week we saw traffic to our website from Russia up about 330% week-over-week,” Li said, the company does not provide specific user counts or regional download figures.

Similarly, FastestVPN told us they saw visitor traffic in Russia increase by 115%, with downloads up 40%. Like ClearVPN, FastestVPN is offering Ukrainians and others affected by censorship three months of its services for free and has targeted the region with email campaigns.

A user wrote; “The war has begun and I fear the government is starting to restrict internet access even more than ever.”

“We have seen a significant increase in VPN sales from Russia,” said Surfshark’s Gabriele Racaityte, reaffirming the experience of other providers. “Such a rapid increase means that people living in Russia are actively looking for ways to avoid government surveillance and censorship, whether it’s accessing blocked websites or social media such as Twitter, Facebook or YouTube.” Surfshark told us that its users receive a post-purchase survey after purchasing its services, and said, “We continue to see a good portion of people in Russia saying they bought VPNs because of the war and increasing censorship”. A user wrote; “The war has begun and I fear the government is starting to restrict internet access even more than ever.” Surfshark has also rolled out a new fake news alert browser extension for Chrome and Firefox users.

VPN on iPhoneSource: Pixabay

Even VPN providers are not immune to government measures in the country, with some choosing not to operate servers in Russia due to government requirements that the state have access to servers located in Russia. NordVPN reiterated to us its 2019 stance that it does not operate servers in the country and does not adhere to the terms set out by Russian media watchdog Roskomnadzor. At the time, NordVPN said Russia’s immediate goal was to prevent users from viewing content blacklisted by the government, but that compliance would also mean obeying other broader privacy laws. internet control.

“Such VPN demand spikes are not unusual,” the company told us. “Whenever a government announces increased surveillance, internet restrictions, or other kinds of constraints, people turn to privacy tools.” Nord says it has seen little growth in visits to its website from people in Russia, with similar spikes to other different regions, for example in Hong Kong during the 2020 protests. Nord also told us that he chose not to block Russia’s access to his service, mainly because most of the internet is already blocked in Russia, preventing ordinary people from accessing information.

As Russia tightens its grip on the flow of information in the country, many companies, including Apple, are pushing back the other way. Earlier this week, the company announced that it was banning the sale of its products in the country and removing Russian state-sponsored media outlets Sputnik and Russia Today. Many other companies, including tech giants Microsoft and Samsung, have followed suit with similar measures. This weekend, payment platform PayPal announced it was suspending its services in the country, joining the ranks of Google and many others in ceasing digital operations in the country.

As with the geopolitical situation and story on the ground, information warfare during the conflict remains extremely fluid and volatile, with measures and countermeasures emerging daily and sometimes hourly.

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