Internet censorship in Russia has grown more difficult for the government. A company hired to identify and monitor people who use Tor to circumvent online censorship has jumped ship.
In 2014, the Russian government contracted with the Central Research Institute of Economics, Informatics and Control Systems “to study the possibility of obtaining technical information on users and users’ equipment” related to Tor.
Tor, also known as The Onion Router, is software that helps people protect online privacy by routing their traffic anonymously. While Tor is designed to be resistant against censorship, certain vulnerabilities can make it possible to monitor Tor users. For example, if Tor is used in conjunction with Adobe Flash or Java-based content, security weaknesses in the latter can help censors to identify Tor users.
In hiring the Central Research Institute of Economics, Informatics and Control Systems to study the use of Tor in Russia, the Russian government signaled its interest in cracking down on tools that allow users to circumvent online censorship controls. The government blocks about 10,000 websites in Russia, ostensibly to prevent access to pornographic or “terrorist” content. However, critics have complained that Russian authorities have censored sites that were critical of the government but did not break laws. Russia also banned Wikipedia and Reddit for a short time earlier this year.
Censorship in Russia has helped the number of daily Tor users in the country to climb from about 20,000 in 2012, when the government first undertook a systematic online censorship program, to around 175,000 today.
Now, preventing those Tor users from accessing censored online content has become more difficult. Several weeks ago, the Central Research Institute of Economics, Informatics and Control Systems announced that it was dropping out of the government’s effort to study Tor use in Russia. So far, there has been no indication that the government has found a replacement for the contractor, or other news about how it might continue efforts to explore ways of blocking Tor.