VPN Company Claims Russian Government Seized Its Servers

Private Internet Access pulls out of the country following new surveillance laws.

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Jul 12 2016, 12:50pm

Image: Shutterstock

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a widely criticized set of counter-terrorism powers, one of which forces virtual private network (VPN) providers—a staple of online privacy—to log all customer traffic for up to a year.

Many people use VPNs to prevent their internet service provider or anyone who might be intercepting their traffic (such as a government) from seeing which sites they visit. Logging all of a user's traffic, and then making it accessible to Russian authorities, obviously undermines those practices.

One VPN company now claims that its servers in Russia have been seized by the authorities because of the new laws, and the company has pulled out from the country in response.

"We believe that due to the enforcement regime surrounding this new law, some of our Russian Servers (RU) were recently seized by Russian Authorities, without notice or any type of due process," VPN provider Private Internet Access wrote in a blog post on Monday (between pointing out how great their product is).

Private Internet Access has also updated its Android and desktop clients; it doesn't go into great detail about what the updates actually are, but says that the applications "improve security measures to mitigate circumstances like this in the future." Those who set up their VPN manually need to download a new configuration file from the company website, which lets users take advantage stronger encryption algorithms.

"We have decided not to do business within the Russian territory. We're going to be further evaluating other countries and their policies," the blog continues.

The new package of counter-terrorism measures—dubbed the "Yarovaya laws" after Irina Yarovaya, the United Russia party member who crafted them—also includes tougher sentences for extremism and forces "organizers of information distribution," including apps such as WhatsApp, Viber and Telegram, to hand over encryption keys.

Of course, digital surveillance is very much established in Russia, but this latest move—seizing servers—is unusual.

"It's much more drastic than anything that was done before," Andrei Soldatov, a journalist and co-author of The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia's Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries, told Motherboard in a Twitter message.

"A month ago local prosecutors started blocking anonymizers," Soldatov said. He added that the authorities could already legally seize servers under previous legislation. Now they have shown they actually will.

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