MOSCOW (Reuters) – As Russian and Ukrainian websites fall victim to cyber attacks and Moscow restricts access to some foreign social media, internet users across both countries have turned to online tools to help circumvent the blocks.
Demand for Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that encrypt data and obscure where a user is located has soared, data from monitoring firm Top10VPN showed, peaking 354% higher in Russia on Sunday when compared to the daily average from Feb. 16-23.
Russia, which calls its actions in Ukraine a “special operation”, invaded its neighbour on Feb. 24, attacking from land, sea and air. At home, it is battling to control the narrative, threatening restrictions on foreign and local media that stray from its official version of events.
Photos and videos were slow to load on Facebook, owned by Meta Platforms Inc, and Twitter, both of which have been targeted by state communications regulator Roskomnadzor.
“VPN demand surged in Russia as authorities restricted Facebook and Twitter over the weekend in a bid to control the flow of information from its invasion of Ukraine,” Top10VPN said.
Russia banned several VPNs last year, but has failed to block them entirely, as part of a wider campaign critics say stifles internet freedom.
In Ukraine, Russian hackers were blamed for a spate of cyberattacks that briefly knocked Ukrainian banking and government websites offline, days before the invasion. Russia denied involvement.
VPN demand in Ukraine began noticeably increasing on Feb. 15 in light of cyberattacks, Top10VPN said, and skyrocketed after the invasion, with demand peaking 424% higher than the daily average in the first half of February.
On Monday, the websites of several Russian media outlets were hacked, with their regular sites replaced by an anti-war message and calls to stop President Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
(Reporting by Reuters in Moscow; Editing by Toby Chopra)