VPNs in Times of War: Why a Rise in Global Conflicts Mean Citizens Now Need VPNs More Than Ever

A NEW era of global instability is dawning.

By Sebastian Schaub, CEO, hide.me

Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine continues to fan the flames of war in Europe. American and Chinese global interests appear increasingly incompatible, threatening a second Cold War. And now that Israel’s long-standing conflict with Palestine has escalated all the way to a ground invasion of Gaza, there are fears that regional powers may be sucked into a wider war in the Middle East.

Between armed conflicts and increasing tensions between global superpowers, it is clear that global volatility is becoming the new normal. But there is one aspect of this new era of instability which is not given enough attention: online freedom.

History tells us that in times of war, citizens are often subject to exceptional restrictions in their daily lives, with the ‘war effort’ demanding sacrifices from everyone in the name of national security. Online, this trade-off may take the form of increased censorship of foreign websites, repression of domestic opposition, and even complete internet blackouts in contested territories. We are already seeing this today, in conflict zones from Russia to Gaza, and in the pre-emptive steps which superpowers like China and America are taking to control an evolving digital battlefield.

But although the fog of war can seem impenetrable, citizens can still stand up for their online freedoms in times of global conflict. And as we continue to advocate for a free and open internet, we must remember the promise of the internet as an emancipatory tool – a means of lifting that fog, rather than just another battlefield liable to become lost in it.

Freedom Under Fire

The first casualty of war, as the saying goes, is truth. This has certainly been the case in Russia, where the state continues to take extensive steps to prevent its own citizens from learning the truth about its ongoing war in Ukraine.

Since the invasion, Russian regulators have censored social media and blocked access to any news websites which refused to follow the Kremlin’s official lines on the ‘special military operation.’ Online freedom campaigners at Citizen Lab have estimated that social media censorship increased thirtyfold in Russia in the wake of the invasion. Among countless others, Facebook, Instagram, and the BBC News website have all been restricted in the name of security. This amounts to the imposition of a digital Iron Curtain, making it difficult for citizens in Russia and occupied Ukraine to get a clear and unbiased picture of the war which is supposedly being carried out in their name.

In response, thousands of Russian citizens have turned to VPNs to circumvent local internet restrictions and inform themselves about the ongoing war. Yet this situation is sadly not unique to Russia. In authoritarian states across the globe, the imposition of online restrictions is a common and growing danger. And as global tensions escalate, restrictions could become more sweeping and more widespread, further threatening the promise of a free and open internet.

The Digital Battlefield

Wars are no longer contested merely on land, at sea, and in the skies. Modern warfare has evolved to view the contested spaces of the internet as a new front, and conflicts between nation states are as likely to take place in foreign cyberspace as on foreign soil.

Under the auspices of national security – or even existential self-preservation – warring states are liable to weaponise the internet by enforcing restrictions both at home and overseas. This may take the form of increased internet surveillance, which threatens freedom of speech and privacy, or else states may try to throttle internet speeds or cut off access altogether in a contested or hostile territory. Since Russia’s invasion, Ukraine has been the victim of cyberattacks targeting its digital and physical infrastructure – and many of Ukraine’s allies, including the UK, have raised the alarm about the possibility of Russian cyberattacks elsewhere.

A similar story is playing out in the Middle East. Israel controls much of the physical infrastructure which powers the internet in Gaza, and this has allowed Israel to impose strategic communications blackouts to aid its invasion. By severely slowing internet speeds – if not cutting connectivity altogether – Israel has been able to control cyberspace, preventing the spread of information and hampering its enemies’ ability to communicate at the war’s most critical early junctures. The problem, as ever, is that non-combatants are inevitably caught in the crossfire. In this case, citizens have been left without internet access at a time when online connectivity – which allows the spread of news about evacuations, aid supplies, and medical access – can be lifesaving.

The Second Cold War

If war can be said to have a second casualty, after truth, it is probably freedom. In addition to conflicts in Europe and the Middle East, some observers believe the world is also heading for a new Cold War. The old battle lines have been redrawn, however, so that it is now China – and not Russia – who can be thought of as the United States’ main adversary. There are many potential flashpoints between China and the US, but disagreements over the governance and independence of Taiwan is the one which has been in the news lately. The two superpowers are also major economic competitors, and China is currently in the process of expanding and modernising its nuclear arsenal – a move which has set some US observers on edge.

The two powers are also competing in cyberspace (as everywhere else) and their rivalry has manifested in internet restrictions on both sides. The Chinese state is famous for its regime of total control of the internet, with its ‘Great Firewall of China’ blocking citizens from viewing any and all content which the authoritarian government doesn’t want them to see. As tensions with America rise, it is possible that the Chinese government will further tighten its stranglehold on the internet in the name of national security. This represents another clear instance where the usefulness and importance of VPNs cannot be overstated.

The internet in America may be much freer, but there are still prominent voices in the US calling for greater online restrictions in response the perceived Chinese threat. Lawmakers have recently debated banning TikTok – owned by Chinese firm ByteDance – over fears around espionage and dodgy data practices, and the attitude of suspicion towards Chinese technology is only growing. Perhaps this suspicion is justified, but ultimately, the American people are the ones who will suffer if their government pulls up the online drawbridge by banning Chinese apps and software.

Preserving Online Freedoms

Against this backdrop of volatility and conflict, it would be easy to simply surrender our claim to a free and open internet. National security is important, of course, and many of the justifications for wartime restrictions on internet usage may sound reasonable – especially at first, in the heat of battle. But law-abiding citizens are the ones who stand the lose the most if we allow the dream of a free internet to become another casualty of war.

As we have seen in Russia, VPNs offer hope for citizens in territories where the internet is heavily restricted or censored. VPNs allow internet users to browse with greater security and privacy while circumventing local restrictions – and in most states and territories, they’re completely legal. VPNs are indispensable for truth-seeking citizens, and those of us who believe in internet freedom must advocate for their continued use.

And in times of war, VPNs are more important than ever. As the world becomes more volatile, we have an even greater duty to safeguard the right to information. This is especially vital for citizens whose internet is under siege and for those living under authoritarian regimes, where war aims and justifications may be hidden from the public.

The power of VPNs lies in lifting the fog of war and safeguarding truth. When war spreads to the internet, and civilians are caught in the crossfire, VPNs remain the free internet’s last line of defence.

About the Author

VPNs in Times of War: Why a Rise in Global Conflicts Mean Citizens Now Need VPNs More Than EverSebastian is the founder of hide.me VPN and he has been working in the internet security industry for over a decade. He started hide.me VPN to make internet security and privacy accessible to everybody.

February 19, 2024

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