VPN law latest step in Kremlin online crackdown, experts say

Laws curbing Internet freedoms were drafted following mass protests in 2011 and 2012 against Vladimir Putin over disputed election results. (AFP)
Updated 29 October 2017
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VPN law latest step in Kremlin online crackdown, experts say

MOSCOW: A law coming into force on Wednesday will give the Kremlin greater control over what Russians can access online ahead of a presidential election next March.
Providers of virtual private networks (VPNs) — which let Internet users access sites banned in one country by making it appear that they are browsing from abroad — will be required to block websites listed by the Russian state communications watchdog.
The law is the latest in a raft of restrictions introduced by President Vladimir Putin’s government and is expected to affect journalists and opposition activists, even though several VPN providers say they will not comply.
Videos by the punk band Pussy Riot and the blog of opposition leader Alexei Navalny have in the past been blocked under a law that allows authorities to blacklist websites they consider extremist.
“Journalists and activists who are using this to put out messages anonymously will be affected,” Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the US-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, said.
Even if they are able to work around the new restrictions, the law will send a powerful message to activists, she said.
“If you’re thinking about taking the steps that you need to stay anonymous from the government, you think maybe it’s not worth it.”
The law will likely be selectively applied and will probably not affect foreign business people using company VPNs, she said.
The measure is part of a wider crackdown on online communications, which this month saw the popular messaging app, Telegram, fined for failing to register with the Roskomnadzor communications watchdog and provide the FSB with information on user interactions.
Starting from 2018, companies on the Roskomnadzor register must also store all the data of Russian users inside the country, according to anti-terror legislation which was passed last year and decried by the opposition and Internet companies.
On Thursday, the Russian parliament’s lower house approved a draft law that would let the attorney general blacklist the websites of “undesirable organizations” without a court order.
While falling short of a blanket ban on virtual private networks, the new law undermines one of their key purposes and “essentially asks VPN services to help enforce Russia’s censorship regime,” Harold Li, vice president at ExpressVPN International, said by email.
“VPNs are central to online privacy, anonymity, and freedom of speech, so these restrictions represent an attack on digital rights,” Li said.
“We hope and expect that most major VPN services will not bend to these new restrictions.”
Providers ZenMate and Private Internet Access — which said it removed all of its servers from Russia in 2016 after several of them were seized by authorities without notification — have already announced that they would not enforce the list of banned websites.
Companies that do not comply are likely to see their own websites placed on the Russian blacklist.
Amnesty International has called the new legislation “a major blow to Internet freedom” and Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who lives in Russia, said the measure “makes Russia both less safe and less free.”
Laws curbing Internet freedoms were drafted following mass protests in 2011 and 2012 against Putin over disputed election results.
The new measures come into force ahead of presidential elections next March, when Putin is widely expected to extend his grip on power to 2024.
Russia’s opposition groups rely heavily on the Internet to make up for their lack of access to the mainstream media.
“The path that Russia chose four years ago is founded on the concept of digital sovereignty,” said Sarkis Darbinyan, lawyer and director of the Digital Rights Center.
“It’s the idea that the government should control the domestic part of the Internet. Western countries do not support this concept and so what we are seeing today is an Asian-style development of the Internet,” along the lines of China and Iran, he said.
But Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted that even if the Kremlin’s end goal is “complete control of communications on the Internet,” its technical capabilities still lag way behind China with its “Great Firewall.”
Many of the invasive measures pushed by the Kremlin are comparable with the snooping powers demanded by Western governments, she said.
“Russia will frequently point to the fact that the FBI and (British Prime Minister) Theresa May want these powers as reasons why they should have them, and why they’re compatible with human rights.”


Japan space probe Hayabusa2 drops hopping rovers toward asteroid

Updated 21 September 2018
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Japan space probe Hayabusa2 drops hopping rovers toward asteroid

  • If the mission is successful, the rovers will conduct the world’s first moving, robotic observation of an asteroid surface
  • The Hayabusa2 mission was launched in December 2014 and will return to Earth with its samples in 2020

TOKYO: A Japanese space probe Friday released a pair of exploring rovers toward an egg-shaped asteroid to collect mineral samples that may shed light on the origin of the solar system.
The “Hayabusa2” probe jettisoned the round, cookie tin-shaped robots toward the Ryugu asteroid, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
If the mission is successful, the rovers will conduct the world’s first moving, robotic observation of an asteroid surface.
Taking advantage of the asteroid’s low gravity, they will jump around on the surface — soaring as high as 15 meters and staying in the air for as long as 15 minutes — to survey the asteroid’s physical features with cameras and sensors.
So far so good, but JAXA must wait for the Hayabusa2 probe to send data from the rovers to Earth in a day or two to assess whether the release has been a success, officials said.
“We are very much hopeful. We don’t have confirmation yet, but we are very, very hopeful,” Yuichi Tsuda, JAXA project manager, told reporters.
“I am looking forward to seeing pictures. I want to see images of space as seen from the surface of the asteroid,” he said.
The cautious announcement came after a similar JAXA probe in 2005 released a rover which failed to reach its target asteroid.
Next month, Hayabusa2 will deploy an “impactor” that will explode above the asteroid, shooting a two-kilo (four-pound) copper object into the surface to blast a crater a few meters in diameter.
From this crater, the probe will collect “fresh” materials unexposed to millennia of wind and radiation, hoping for answers to some fundamental questions about life and the universe, including whether elements from space helped give rise to life on Earth.
The probe will also release a French-German landing vehicle named Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout (MASCOT) for surface observation.
Hayabusa2, about the size of a large fridge and equipped with solar panels, is the successor to JAXA’s first asteroid explorer, Hayabusa — Japanese for falcon.
That probe returned from a smaller, potato-shaped, asteroid in 2010 with dust samples despite various setbacks during its epic seven-year odyssey and was hailed a scientific triumph.
The Hayabusa2 mission was launched in December 2014 and will return to Earth with its samples in 2020.