(p. A1) After Moscow erected a digital barricade in March , blocking access to independent news sites and social media platforms to hide information about its unfolding invasion of Ukraine, many Russians looked for a workaround. One reliable route they found came from a small Swiss company based nearly 2,000 miles away.
The company, Proton, provides free software that masks a person’s identity and location online. That gives a user in Russia access to the open web by making it appear that the person is logging in from the Netherlands, Japan or the United States. A couple of weeks after the internet blockade, about 850,000 people inside Russia used Proton each day, up from fewer than 25,000.
That is, until the end of March, when the Russian government found a way to block Proton, too.
Targeting Proton was the opening salvo of a continuing back-and-forth battle, pitting a team of about 25 engineers against a country embarking on one of the most aggressive censorship campaigns in recent memory.
Working from a Geneva office where the company keeps its name off the building directory, Proton has spent nine pressure-packed months repeatedly tweaking its technology to avoid Russian blocks, only to be countered again by government censors in Moscow. Some employees took (p. A9) Proton off their social media profiles out of concern that they would be targeted personally.
The high-stakes chess match mirrors what is playing out with growing frequency in countries facing coups, wars and authoritarian rule, where restricting the internet is a tool of repression. The blocks drive citizens to look for workarounds. Engineers at companies like Proton think up new ways for those people to secretly reach the open web. And governments, in turn, seek out new technical tricks to plug leaks.
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Companies rarely discuss being targeted by an authoritarian government out of fear of escalating the conflict. But Andy Yen, Proton’s founder and chief executive, said that after a period of trying to keep its “head down,” Proton wanted to raise awareness about the increasing sophistication of governments, in Russia and elsewhere, to block citizens from reaching the open web and the need for technologists, companies and governments to push back.
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“We’re gearing up for a long fight,” Mr. Yen said in an interview at the company’s office. “Everybody hopes this will have a happy ending, but it’s not guaranteed. We don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, in fact, but you keep going because if we don’t do it, then maybe nobody else will.”
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The battle took on a “Spy vs. Spy” dynamic in Proton’s headquarters. Mr. Yen said a network of people within the government, telecommunications firms and civil society groups had helped Proton operate in Russia, providing access to local networks and sharing intelligence about how the censorship system worked. But those contacts began to go dark as the Kremlin’s crackdown on dissent intensified.
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Mr. Yen was interrupted during a staff meeting in mid-July with news that Russian censors had come up with an even more elaborate block. A corporate chart from the time shows use dropping off a cliff. Russian engineers had identified what is known as an authentication “handshake,” the vital moment when Proton’s VPN connection gets established before reaching the wider web. Blocking the link made Proton’s service essentially unusable.
“We had no idea what was happening and how they were doing it,” Mr. Cesarano said.
By August, after working around the clock for days to find a fix, Proton acknowledged defeat and pulled its app from Russia. The company has spent the months since then developing a new architecture that makes its VPN service harder to identify because it looks more like a regular website to censorship software scanning a country’s internet traffic. Proton has been successfully testing the system in Iran, where Proton has seen a sharp increase in VPN use during recent political demonstrations.
In Russia, Proton has reintroduced its apps using the new system. Mr. Yen acknowledged that it probably wasn’t a long-term fix. He has confidence in the new technology, but figures Russian engineers will eventually figure out a new way to push back, and the game will continue.
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(Note: the online version of the story was updated Dec. 9, 2022, and has the title “Inside the Face-Off Between Russia and a Small Internet Access Firm.” )