Privacy is under attack from two new countries. Popular VPN services get caught selling you fake server locations and injecting ads into your web browsing. Verizon introduces a new speed limit on cellular media streaming and more in our VPN and privacy news roundup.
China moves to ban VPNs entirely
China has reportedly decided to enforce a blanket ban on VPN services.
They’ll do so by ordering the three top (state-owned) telecommunications providers to block all VPN access directly. The ban comes into effect in February 2018.
The Great Firewall used to be breachable with a VPN running obfuscation, but the Chinese government is keen to address the problem for good.
They already use deep packet inspection (DPI) to block most VPN traffic as well as to censor content including the popular websites Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia.
There will be less access to the open Internet when telecommunications providers inevitably cooperate. The change is likely going to render VPNs useless for a time, but ultimately I suspect we will find a way around the bans.
Apple has already removed all VPN apps from the Chinese version of their store. The country recently announced that all VPN developers must have a government sanctioned license.
Of course, this further complicates matters for providers. Their citizens can do little to fight the changes.
The Russian response to VPNs
What we do know is; a new law passed. It prohibits the use of any technology when used to access restricted URLs, websites or IP addresses including VPNs.
The law will be ratified on November 1st. There’s hardly any time to confirm exactly how Russia is planning to enforce the ban. Nonetheless, VPNs are going to feel the squeeze.
Like China, Russia blocks and bans an extensive list of websites from public use.
Reports suggest they will ban websites that offer VPN services by adding them to a blacklist, rather than blocking VPNs directly.
VPN providers are also being asked to implement the Unified Register of Prohibited Information blacklist.
Registered VPN services will be forced to log user meta data and transactional billing data for a minimum of six months.
Russia has banned anonymous end to end communication, further tightening the net. Soon, in Russia, it will be easy for the Kremlin to see who’s doing what.
The Enemies Within?
The Federal Trade Commission could get involved in an ongoing dispute between a popular VPN provider and the Washington based Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT).
The CDT’s complaint “concerns undisclosed and unclear data sharing and traffic redirection occurring… that should be considered unfair and deceptive trade practices under Section 5 of the FTC Act.”
The provider has been called out for violating their policy of keeping no user logs. They also failed to provide due diligence regarding the reviews they received from affiliated websites.
They are not shielding their users properly, and they use inline frame code (iFrame) for advertising. Both are linked, according to the CDT report.
“When using a VPN service, a user’s internet connections are routed through servers either run by or controlled by the VPN provider. VPN providers may log data about this connection. These VPN logs serve a variety of functions, ranging from operations to delivery of third-party advertising.”
The last thing you expect from a VPN is the delivery of ads, especially when you’re probably using the service as an added layer of security.
Then there’s the lack of due diligence. Fake reviews exist all over the web, but it’s still highly unethical.
Overall, it’s a shocking state of affairs. VPN providers have a duty to provide anonymity and support to their users. However, they’re not always infallible. On that note…
Fake Server Locations
This time, they weren’t telling the truth about their server locations.
Hosting servers in a variety of countries across the globe is a costly exercise. So a number of companies decide to circumvent the expense by lying.
The ploy failed because users started testing the locations. Restore Privacy confirmed the findings. They note:
“In other words, a server that is allegedly in Pakistan is actually in Singapore. Or a server that should be in Saudi Arabia is actually in Los Angeles, California.”
Both are real examples from their study.
They confirmed their findings using network-testing tools. Worse still, some representatives chose to lie when they were asked directly about the server locations advertised.
Other providers euphemistically named them ‘virtual servers.’ Virtual because they do not actually physically exist in the location they’re supposed to.
It’s not as bad as outright lying, but it’s still highly questionable. At the very least it’s false advertising.
As you may know, the server location is critical when it comes to using a VPN. It’s the key to accessing content from different regions. The server location also affects your connection speed and ping.
There’s a whole heap of potential problems when you connect to the wrong server. You can use a network testing tool if you’re unsure about the location of your server.
Can a VPN Save Verizon’s Unlimited Plan?
Recently Verizon raised the price of their new unlimited data plan and put a 720p resolution cap on video streams. To make matters worse, they are changing the terms of existing contracts they made with users on the unlimited plan. Anyone who signed up to the unlimited plan so they could use it to stream 1080p / 4k video just got kicked in shins. For now, there is a work around. If you connect to a VPN first and then stream the video, you will be able to watch it in all of its 4k glory! I do not know if Verizon will begin slowing down all VPN transfers or not but I can’t help but think how nice it would be if the FCC began enforcing Net Neutrality right now.
It hasn’t been the most cheerful news roundup, but them’s the breaks.
Russia and China have continued to battle VPN providers with the full power of the state. They’re winning, and it’s only going to get harder for users in the coming months.
For those of us that live in the West, we can only hope that we never have to deal with similar issues. However, there have been a worrying number of steps towards a 1984-esque dystopian future of our own.
Especially in the US and UK respectively. US Executive Order 12333 and the Investigatory Powers Act of 2016 means that the government can spy on citizens when deemed necessary. The UK already want you to sign up to a porn register, and most of us just want to be able to browse in peace.
It’s all well and good to look at former communist countries with disdain from afar, but we have to be careful about defending our civil liberties in the meantime. We don’t want to end up with various blacklists, and government approved sources of information.
On the other hand, some VPNs are proving to be dangerous in their own right. From outright lying to their customers, or selling them out to advertisers, recent news has confirmed that you do need to be careful.
You might expect that sort of behavior from a smaller VPN, but the opposite is true. These providers are some of the largest providers on the Internet.