China is making it harder for internet users to escape the country’s mainland censors.
New software that publicly displays the internet addresses of anyone using VPNs, virtual private networks, or the like has been introduced by Chinese authorities. The aim is to trace those who are sending information from the country to outside internet portals such as Google.
The government has previously used this type of tracking software to follow citizens connected to underground banks that don’t follow the government’s tight rules.
Why would the authorities launch a tracking program for those seeking to connect to other users who aren’t connected to government sites?
Virtual private networks (VPNs) and similar services provide users with an alternative internet connection while keeping them hidden behind the borders of China. These internet providers typically use “proxy servers” to hide where they physically connect to and provide a virtual “layer of protection” between a person and their actual location.
These VPN services have grown in popularity in China as internet users seek to avoid access to blacklisted websites.
Censors have become increasingly opposed to the use of VPNs, who help users circumvent online censorship, in the past year.
Nearly three quarters of Chinese internet users pay for VPNs. That has increased by 23 percent since the end of 2017 and now includes more than 200 million users.
Over 1 million Chinese internet users now have accounts with virtual private networks (VPNs), with most going for the simple, free solutions.
For a $4.99 a month, the service guarantees any data packets sent or received will be transported.
VPN servers outside China are set up using a blue proxy server; this protects the information sent to the server; but it also defines a range of IP addresses with which that server cannot be connected.
This effectively allows anyone to see anyone who is connected to the server.
“The government has been clamping down on VPN usage [in China],” Myriam Bouye, a researcher at French-based cybersecurity firm, Cellebrite, told the Guardian.
“Authorities have also introduced a number of measures aimed at weakening the illicit access to banned content by internet users, and are especially scared by the growth of VPNs, particularly in rural China,” she added.
The new tracking software will also share a user’s IP address with any “three companies or media platforms in China” if he or she visits a “relevant website.”
While VPNs are strictly banned by the Chinese government, they are widely used by mainland citizens wanting to connect to the wider web. The government’s “Internet Great Cannon” was first introduced in July last year. It wiped messages from Google and blocked access to the smartphone app Viber.
A second program called Xiong He, which was also launched in July, blocks links to foreign news sites.